Who Is The New Overlord? : The Two-Way IBM's Watson supercomputer crushed its human competition on Jeopardy!. Now, researchers will test how helpful it could be in the health care industry.
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Who Is The New Overlord?

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Who Is The New Overlord?

Who Is The New Overlord?

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Melissa Block.


BLOCK: Sometime in the future, this might be an answer on "Jeopardy!" In 2011, this computer bested two previous champs on a television quiz show. And the question would be: Who is Watson?

Watson is the name of the IBM supercomputer that handily defeated two human contenders in a three-day televised contest that ended yesterday. Just like his flesh and blood competitors, Watson picked categories in the Sony Pictures television game show and gave answers in the form of a question.

WATSON: U.S. geographic nicknames for 1,200.

ALEX TREBEK: This town is known as Sin City and its downtown is Glitter Gulch. Watson?

WATSON: What is Las Vegas?

TREBEK: Correct.

BLOCK: Watson beat out "Jeopardy's!" top money winner Brad Rutter and the champ who won 74 consecutive appearances in 2004, Ken Jennings, who joins me now. And Ken, first off, condolences for your loss.

KEN JENNINGS: Well, it's been a tough time for me and my family, but we're working through the pain, Melissa.

BLOCK: Glad to hear that. Well, you ended up with $24,000. Brad Rutter, about 22,000. Watson kind of crushed you, didn't he? Seventy-seven thousand.

JENNINGS: It was not close after the second show in which Watson virtually ran the board. It was a dominating performance.

BLOCK: And that's why Watson was really, really good with the buzzer, which is a little bit of an art form, I guess.

JENNINGS: It is. You know, I'm sure IBM will draw attention to the fact that it's miraculous they've answered these questions at all. But the fact that on TV, it was answering them first is more an indication of the fact that human reflexes have a hard time competing with the precision of electronic circuitry. And that's what you were seeing when Watson hits that buzzer.

BLOCK: Mm-hmm. So in other words, he was answering or it was answering questions that you knew the answer to. He was just hitting the buzzer first.

JENNINGS: Yeah. I'd venture to say that if this were a very boring game in which all three of us wrote down our responses on paper, a good human "Jeopardy!" player could take Watson nearly all the time.

BLOCK: Well, let's bring IBM's chief scientist behind Watson into the conversation, David Ferruci. And David, what do you think about what Ken is saying, that really it was sort of the reflex of getting to that buzzer first that Watson could really shine in?

DAVID FERRUCCI: Yeah. And I think that, you know, once you get to a point where you can understand the questions well enough, you can analyze the content you've read, you could build evidence and you can compute an answer. And that, you know, it's all about, you know, getting fast enough to the buzz, and that's true. Of course, getting in a game with champions, like Ken and Brad, certainly is a hard part.

And you can't get in there as a slow buzzer and - because I think both Ken and Brad would agree that once you get in there with champion players, you know, that marginal advantage that the computer may have had in terms of - again, I don't think it's an unfair advantage. It's a fair advantage, where, you know, the computer happen to be - have a very consistent and fast buzz time, gives you an edge in "Jeopardy!." It's the nature of the game.

BLOCK: Any disappointments for you, David Ferrucci, in Watson's performance?

FERRUCCI: You know, I would have love to see it get smarter in a few things and - but this is, you know, this is a constant angst, of course, that we have at IBM is (unintelligible) failings, and you think, wow, you know, we have ideas to get algorithms. We know that we can make it smarter about this and smarter about that.

You know, one of the things that struck me in particular was the category - was APB, All Points Bulletin. And then, of course, humans look at that and think, oh, you know, All Points Bulletin is associated with criminal behavior and who's the villain here, who's the victim, and just all these sort of associations are made instantly and very, very difficult thing for computers to do and yet so natural for humans. And that's where you can just go, oh, you know, we could have made it smarter a little bit harder, but we couldn't have made it smarter there.

BLOCK: Well, Ken Jennings, at the end of the final game, at the end of final "Jeopardy!," you wrote something on your video screen about Watson. What did you write?

JENNINGS: I, for one, welcome our new computer overlords. (Unintelligible) joke, I think. And the tricky part was getting it all written down (unintelligible)...


JENNINGS: ...(unintelligible) I got to say. I don't know if Watson could do that. I...


BLOCK: Watson can't even write his name on the slate the way you guys did.

JENNINGS: That's right. Humanity still has a handwriting edge, thank goodness.

FERRUCCI: There you go. There you go.

BLOCK: Well, what do you think? Is there going to be a rematch?

JENNINGS: I think the obvious rematch is not on the "Jeopardy!" stage. I think it's to see what Watson's other skills are. You know what? Let's try "Dancing with the Stars." Let's...


JENNINGS: ...let's see what it can really do.

FERRUCCI: There you go.

BLOCK: Game on.

Ken Jennings and David Ferrucci, thanks so much.

JENNINGS: It's a pleasure.

FERRUCCI: Thank you. Bye-bye.

BLOCK: That's former "Jeopardy!" champion Ken Jennings and the principal investigator of the IBM Watson project, David Ferrucci.

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