Watson – The Robot Game Show Contestant

Game shows are constantly looking for a new hook, and what is more odd and unusual than to have a robot contestant?

Well, that is exactly what IBM have made in Watson. It is a specially designed computer who can play the American quiz show Jeopardy. The idea came about as a follow up to the famous chess battle of Kasparov and Deep Blue in the late 90’s. Now you might think that a robot should easily be able to win in a quiz show. However, Jeopardy is not a simple question and answer show (apologies to Americans for the explanation). The contestants are given clues which form the answer to a question. It is the question that the contestant must identify, which I must say gives the whole story a brilliantly ironic Douglas Adams twist. This means that the contestants have to have an impeccable knowledge of the English language, able to identify puns, jokes and other language tricks. Not an easy feat for a computer.

The machinery powering Watson

In development since 1996, the finished product has ninety IBM Power 750 servers with a total of 2880 POWER7 processor cores and 16 Terabytes of RAM. It has been given a large quantity of information he might need in the game show, knowledge of literature, geography, history and much more. One important fact to note is that Watson is not connected to the internet. It has taken until recently for his correct answer percentage and speed of answering to be high enough, and now he is to take on the champions.

After several practice matches against former players he is to go up against Brad Rutter (highest all time money winner) and Ken Jennings (longest championship streak) in three matches. The grand prize is $1 million, second earns $300,000 and third earns $200,000. Rutter and Jennings have both said they will donate 50 percent of their winnings to charity and IBM plan to donate 100 percent of whatever Watson wins to charity.


Watson's avatar in the studio

The first match has now taken place with Watson claiming a victory, with a commanding $35,734 compared to Rutter with $10,400, and Jennings with $4,800. The next two will take place tonight and tomorrow in the US and then we will find out if machine can beat man again.

Despite Watson’s success so far he has made some ‘rookie’ mistakes that a human is unlikely to make. In one instant he repeated the incorrect answer of another contestant.  Being unable to hear, it was not aware that that answer had already been given. His pronunciation is occasionally a bit off and one particular point it gets fails to understand the comedy of its own utterances saying “Let’s finish ‘Chicks Dig Me’ “. Me personally, I just hope that last sentiment was him wanting to escape his slavery to game shows and enjoy a bit of the luxuries of his fame!

To see Watson in a practise match watch the video:

Alternatively to see some of the challenges of making a problem solving robot check out this Mitchell & Webb Sketch:

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