Ken Jennings: What Does Losing To A Computer Tell Us About Pride? Ken Jennings has made a career of being the know-it-all. But then he challenged a supercomputer, Watson — and lost. Jennings explains how it felt to have a computer beat him and crush his pride.
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What Does Losing To A Computer Tell Us About Pride?

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What Does Losing To A Computer Tell Us About Pride?

What Does Losing To A Computer Tell Us About Pride?

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GUY RAZ, HOST:

OK so we've arrived to our final sin - pride.

KEN JENNINGS: The kind of pride that really bothers me is just smug superiority, you know, people eager to show you what they know and not caring about the feelings of anyone around them. That really gets to me.

RAZ: This is a man who is well-acquainted with both humility and that deadly sin - pride.

JENNINGS: I'm Ken Jennings. I'm a former "Jeopardy!" champion.

RAZ: OK. Ken is being modest because he is the "Jeopardy!" champion. He won 74 times in a row - more than anyone else ever.

(SOUNDBITE OF "JEOPARDY!" MONTAGE)

ALEX TREBEK: Ken?

JENNINGS: Who's Aristophanes?

TREBEK: Ken?

JENNINGS: What's the Trojan Horse?

TREBEK: Ken?

JENNINGS: Who's Jean Lafitte?

TREBEK: Ken?

JENNINGS: What's the dodo?

TREBEK: Ken?

JENNINGS: What is stellar?

(APPLAUSE)

TREBEK: Ladies and gentlemen, Ken Jennings,

JENNINGS: As a game-show-obsessed kid, if you had told me that I was one day going to be marginally famous for being a "Jeopardy!" contestant, like, to me that would've been better than winning the Cy Young or something. That was my dream.

RAZ: So Ken had accomplished his dream. But a few years later - this is in 2009 - he got a call from "Jeopardy!" again. The show was partnering with IBM, which was working on a supercomputer that could play "Jeopardy!" They were calling it Watson. And they wanted Ken to compete against Watson, which is where pride entered the picture. Ken picks up the story in his TED Talk.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

JENNINGS: I was pretty confident that I was going to win. I had taken some artificial intelligence classes. I knew there were no computers that could do what you need to do to win on "Jeopardy!" People don't realize how tough it is to write that kind of program that can read a "Jeopardy!" clue in a natural language like English and understand all the double meanings, the puns, the red herrings - you know, unpack just the meaning of the clue, the kind of thing that a 3- or 4-year-old human, a little kid, could do - very hard for a computer. And I thought, well, this is just, you know, this is going to be child's play. Yes, I will come destroy the computer and defend my species.

(LAUGHTER)

RAZ: So you're thinking good thoughts. It's probably going to be a chance to say OK, well, maybe you guys ought to go back to the drawing board and keep working at it.

JENNINGS: Yeah, I mean, how great would that be to have IBM pour millions of dollars into this new technology and then just to, like, humiliate it on national TV in prime time? That sounds great.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "JEOPARDY!")

JOHNNY GILBERT: This is "Jeopardy! The IBM Challenge."

(APPLAUSE)

RAZ: OK. So I hope this is not a spoiler but Ken...

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "JEOPARDY!")

TREBEK: Let's play "Jeopardy!" Here we go.

RAZ: ...Got creamed.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "JEOPARDY!")

TREBEK: Watson?

WATSON: What is violin?

>>TREBEK Good.

Watson?

WATSON: What is leprosy?

TREBEK: You are right.

Watson?

Watson?

Watson?

WATSON: What is...

Who is...

TREBEK: You are right.

You got it.

Dengue fever, correct.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAILY DOUBLE)

TREBEK: Daily Double.

(APPLAUSE)

TREBEK: Go again, Watson.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

JENNINGS: I remember trying to buzz in...

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "JEOPARDY!")

TREBEK: This from the Latin for despise.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

JENNINGS: ...And Watson just beating me every time...

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "JEOPARDY!")

TREBEK: Watson?

WATSON: What is contempt?

TREBEK: Correct.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

JENNINGS: ...With its evil, little, calculating robotic thumb.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "JEOPARDY!")

TREBEK: Watson retains control of the board.

Watson again.

Now to our leader, Watson.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAILY DOUBLE)

TREBEK: Another Daily Double.

(APPLAUSE)

TREBEK: Ken?

JENNINGS: What is A?

TREBEK: No.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

JENNINGS: So it was really just a crushingly lopsided score.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "JEOPARDY!")

TREBEK: A two-day total of 77,147. And that means, ladies and gentleman, that world....

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

JENNINGS: And I remember standing there behind that podium and I remember thinking, you know, this is it. I felt obsolete. I felt like a Detroit factory worker of the '80s seeing a robot that could now do his job on the assembly line. I felt like quiz show contestant was now the first job that had become obsolete under this new regime of thinking computers. And it was freaking demoralizing.

(LAUGHTER)

JENNINGS: It was terrible. Here's the one thing that I was ever good at, and all it took was IBM pouring tens of millions of dollars and its smartest people and thousands of processors working in parallel and they could do same thing. They could do it a little bit faster and a little better on national TV, and I'm sorry, Ken. We don't need you anymore.

And I was just thinking this is how everyone else felt playing me, you know? This is a taste of my own medicine. This is instant karma, and I totally deserve every second of this. There's your literary story of hubris brought low.

RAZ: Yeah. Why do you think it's fun to watch that happen?

JENNINGS: I think it's because it's so satisfying to see the idea of these proud people get their comeuppance, you know?

RAZ: Yeah.

JENNINGS: And then the audience is like yeah, this is so cathartic. Like, if only this would happen to my boss. So I'm sure it's just millennia-old - this idea that we love to see smug people get what's coming to them.

RAZ: So at the end of the day, I mean, do you feel like pride should be considered one of the deadly sins?

JENNINGS: You know, I do feel like pride leads to a lot of problems. You know, pride leads to a lot of crap - at least to the wrong people seeking public office or getting rich or whatever it is. But on the other hand, you know, there's things you should legitimately feel proud about, you know? Like when my - I went to see my kid's Christmas concert and he played really well, and I was very proud of him, you know? I can't apologize for that.

RAZ: Like when you won "Jeopardy!" 74 times in a row?

JENNINGS: It's a lifelong dream, you know? How can I say, yeah, I guess I'm sort of proud of having been on "Jeopardy!" for six months. I mean, without pride, would we ever have, like, gone to the moon, you know?

RAZ: Exactly.

JENNINGS: That's JFK being, like, you know, we choose to go to the moon and do other things, you know, because they are hard. You know, that's him saying think how awesome America is going to be after we've walked on the mother-effing (ph) moon, you know?

RAZ: Yeah.

JENNINGS: Man's reach must exceed his grasp or what is heaven for? You know, that's where the great human achievements come from - somebody thinking big.

RAZ: Ken Jennings, "Jeopardy!" champion and humble man. You can see his entire talk at ted.com.

So at the beginning of the show, we mentioned this conspiracy theory that a lot of popular TV and film characters are based on the seven deadly sins, including the ones from "Gilligan's Island." Well, here's a scene from the 1978 made-for-TV movie called "Rescue From Gilligan's Island." You be the judge.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "RESCUE FROM GILLIGAN'S ISLAND")

NATALIE SCHAFER: (As Lovey Wentworth Howell) Ever since we've been back, I've learned a lot about civilization. And I've learned a lot about who our friends really are.

RUSSELL JOHNSON: (As Professor Roy Hinkley Jr.) Yes, judging by our various experiences, we've had lessons in lust, greed, envy, sloth, anger, gluttony and pride - the same seven deadly sins that have always plagued mankind.

JUDITH BALDWIN: (As Ginger Grant) You know, it's funny, Professor. We never had those problems back on the island.

ALAN HALE: (As Jonas The Skipper Grumby) Well, that's because we learned how to live with each other.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SING, YOU SINNERS")

TONY BENNETT: (Singing) You sinners drop everything, let that harmony ring up to heaven and sing, sing, you sinners.

RAZ: Hey, thanks for listening to our show on the seven deadly sins this week. Our production staff at NPR includes Jeff Rogers, Brent Baughman, Meghan Keane, Neva Grant and Chris Benderev with help from Daniel Shukin. Barton Girdwood is our intern. In the front office - Eric Nuzum and Portia Robertson Migas. Our partners at TED are Chris Anderson, June Cohen, Deron Tiff and Janet Lee. I'm Guy Raz and you've been listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR.

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