Watson vs. Ken Jennings: Will the machines win?

Studio 360

This story was originally covered by PRI’s Studio 360. For more, listen to the audio above.

A decade ago, the idea of having a machine that could beat a champion human at Jeopardy! would have been hard to imagine. Even technology writer Clive Thompson would have doubted that such a machine could be ready by 2011. “I would absolutely have said no,” Thompson told PRI’s Studio 360. “I would have said you’re dreaming.”

This week, the unthinkable may occur. A computer named Watson is competing against two of the greatest Jeopardy! players of our generation: Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter. And the computer is good, too. It finished tied for first with Rutter in the first round. Thomson, who had a chance to take a look at it, and said:

Since I’m not very good at Jeopardy! at all, it was freaky to watch it just mop up the floor with categories where I would not have had the slightest chance at guessing at something.

The computer works using keyword combinations, crunching possible answers, and statistically figuring out the most likely result. The inventor, Dr. Dave Ferrucci, is an amazingly intense person, according to Thompson. “Every time Watson got something wrong, his entire body would seize up,” Thompson said. “It was like watching a football coach.” Ferrucci was reportedly prescribed a mouth guard, because he was grinding his teeth too much while watching Watson.

Even if Watson were able to win, that doesn’t mean the machines are taking over. “The best AI tends to think and do things that are very different from the way that humans think,” Thompson says. “The most useful, smart tools don’t replicate what we do, they do something we can’t do. And we do things they can’t do.” So even if the machines can win at Jeopardy!, chances are the humans will remain in control.


PRI’s Peabody Award-winning “Studio 360 with Kurt Andersen” from WNYC is public radio’s smart and surprising guide to what’s happening in pop culture and the arts. Each week, Kurt Andersen introduces you to the people who are creating and shaping our culture. Life is busy — so let “Studio 360” steer you to the must-see movie this weekend, the next book for your nightstand, or the song that will change your life.

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