Watson Has No Thumbs

Like all Jeopardy! fans, I’m looking forward to next week’s broadcast showdown between Watson, the IBM computer designed to be a Jeopardy! killer app, and two all-time Jeopardy! kingpins, Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter.

Here’s a NYTimes feature on a Nova TV special on Watson.  That piece concludes with the tantalizing question:  Does Watson’s lack of thumbs give the machine an unfair edge?  Because all Jeopardy! fans know that the real key to winning the game isn’t having the right or best knowledge base, but putting that knowledge base to use by mastering the rhythm of ringing in.

Jeopardy! is a game, in other words, not just a test of intelligence, or of certain kinds or types of intelligence.

[A quick trademark aside:  I’m fascinated by the exclamation point in Jeopardy!.  It’s there, I take it, for reasons related to trademark law. The exclamation point enhances the distinctiveness of the show’s name and the mark, for both legal and marketing purposes.  The exclamation pointn in Yahoo! does the same thing.  But it feels modestly transgressive to write “Jeopardy” and refer to the TV show and related products and services, almost like I’m tempting Alex Trebek’s legions to come after me with a cease-and-desist letter, which I very much doubt they will.  Nonetheless, Jeopardy it is, from here on in.  Away with the meaningless exclamation point.]

About that buzzer: 

Back in the Art Fleming days, or P.A. (“Pre-Alex”), Jeopardy contestants could buzz in as soon as the card was pulled up (they used cards in those days to conceal the printed clues, or “answers”) and Art Fleming started to read the answer aloud.  The timer started simultaneously, so the contestant who buzzed in early had a fixed amount of time to read the answer and respond with a question.  One of the innovations of the Trebek era was to change that practice, via a primitive lockout mechanism.  Contestants were forbidden from buzzing in before Alex finished reading the answer aloud.  A contestant who buzzed in too early found that he or she was “locked out” of buzzing in — for a very, very brief moment — once Alex finished the reading.  Buzz in too early, in other words, and you found yourself listening to a rival buzz in on time, and answer the question correctly. 

One of the secrets of Jeopardy success, therefore, is mastering the rhythm:  Alex ends, you buzz in.  (The electronics behind all of this are primitive — this is a game show — but I’ll skip them for now.)  A Jeopardy champion is someone who, among other things, masters that rhythm, or at least has the hang of that rhythm in a way that rival players do not.  Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter?  They are fonts of information.  But they are also masters of the buzzer.

What about Watson?  I’m reminded of the classic line from WKRP in Cincinnati:  Oh!  The humanity!  (As turkeys rain down on shoppers.)  The absence of thumbs doesn’t mean only that Watson has an edge over human competitors; the absence of thumbs means that Watson isn’t at risk of jumping the gun and getting locked out.  Watson won’t be playing Jeopardy; the computer won’t be playing the way that Jennings and Rutter will be playing.  The computer will simply be the Dread Pirate Roberts engaged in a Princess Bride-like battle of wits.