At MIT, The Jeopardy Machine Is Personal

By Andrea Smardon

Feb. 16, 2011

Ken Jennings, a computer named Watson and Brad Rutter compete on Jeopardy on Monday. (AP)

BOSTON — Wednesday night is the much-anticipated final round of the quiz show Jeopardy, in which Watson, the first non-human contestant, competes against the two greatest champions in the show's history. 
The contest has generated a special kind of excitement at MIT. 
How do you pack a room full of MIT students in a classroom on Valentine’s Day evening?  Turn down the lights, pull down the screen, and broadcast an episode of a quiz show pitting human beings against a machine.

MIT students watch the computer Watson compete on Jeopardy on Monday. (Andrea Smardon/WGBH)

“You are about to witness what may prove to be an historic competition…an exhibition match pitting an IBM computer system against the two most celebrated and successful players in Jeopardy history,” said Jeopardy host Alex Trebek.  Sounds like a lot of fun, doesn’t it?”
The human contestants are Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter, but the real draw is Watson, an artificial intelligence program designed to answer questions posed in natural language  with all its complexities and double meanings. 
MIT senior Vibin Kundukulam is a former Jeopardy contestant himself, and had the opportunity to play Watson in preliminary rounds last year.  For him, this contest is personal. “Being human, I kind of want Brad and Ken to show the machine up; I also want them to get revenge on it for me,” Kundukulam said.
Kundukulam is still a little sore that he got beat by a machine, but he says he was also able to beat Watson in another match.  He says Watson has stepped up its game, but still falters in predictable places.
“There are certain things I sort of expected, like some of the types of clues are more difficult, where it had to really parse that natural language, where it had interpret puns and riddles, it had a lot of trouble with that as opposed to fill in the blank, finish this riddle, that was very easy for it.” Kundukulam said.
That happened when Watson chose “alternate meanings” for 800. Trebek read the clue, “Stylish elegance or student who all graduated in the same year.”
“What is chic?” suggested Watson.
Brad Rutter got it right: Class.
IBM’s David Gondek is a research scientist who was intimately involved in the creation of Watson. He came up from New York to be with the MIT audience, and he watches the screen like a nervous parent, putting his head in his hands numerous times throughout the program.  
 “One thing that drew me to MIT was that everyone seemed so excited about it.  People were cheering during the match.  It’s like you’re part of an event,” Gondek said.
MIT is also one of IBM’s academic partners enlisted to create and improve Watson.  The university has been a pioneer in natural language question answering systems.
 “We have a number of academic partners we’ve worked with, and they’ve put stuff into the system that’s improved performance – like big jumps.  It’s great to get people excited, getting people thinking about this.  Maybe they’ll think of the next algorithm to go in Watson,” Gondek said.
Watson is also generating talk on campus about other applications. Rutu Manchiganti is a graduate student in System Design and Management.
 “We were just talking about how useful Watson’s technology would be in other contexts, in business contexts for example.  We were talking about health care, like how it could help diagnose people.  You could put in exactly what you’re feeling, it would have all this research and background in its brain.  We thought that was -- the potential there is enormous.”
But even with all the potential, Manchiganti has to side with her own.
 “I think it’s a huge leap for a machine to be as intelligent or to seem as intelligent as Watson is but I’m still rooting for the humans,” Manchiganti said.
The MIT community will be watching with special interest to see if a machine can beat humans at their own game in Jeopardy’s final round this evening.

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