Well, the contest isn’t over yet, but the outcome looks like a foregone conclusion. After two days, the Watson computer is poised to defeat the two human champions it is playing. The computer’s performance has been impressive, to say the least, and has left the human contestants looking dazed and confused.
And who wouldn’t be? The computer was both ruthless & relentless. (There I go, anthromorphising again.) The two human champions were barely able to answer a question or two as Watson virtually ran the board in the 2nd day of the competition. Watson, which has to generate an answer in real-time, was so successful at beating the human contestants to the punch that it generated speculation about whether the computer had some kind of unfair time advantage from being fed the question electronically. As reported here (thanks, Phillip), according to IBM, Watson actually cedes a slight “reaction time” advantage to the human contestants. Given how successful Watson is in determining the correct answer so quickly, I think it would be more sporting to give the human players an even bigger head start. Hey, give us poor, deserving human a break!
After Day 1 of the contest, the computer and one of the contestants were tied, and it looked as if things would get interesting. After Tuesday’s totally one-sided shellacking, though, commentators were reduced to wondering about the few missteps and obvious quirks that the computer did exhibit on occasion. See, for example: http://www.wired.com/epicenter/2011/02/watson-does-well-and-not/, which analyzes the prodigious strengths the program displayed, as well as describing its few weak spots.
I am afraid that the computer is so good at answering Trivia question that the contest isn’t turning into much of a drama. (It is turning into a great promo, though, for the IBM Watson Research lab.)
However, it remains a challenge of mythic proportions, which is very cool. Like John Henry, the steel-driving man vs. a steam-powered machine, or Charlie Chaplin trapped inside the assembly line in “Modern Times.” On Ray Kurzweil’s web site (he is the author of “The Singularity is Near”), I can almost hear the champagne glasses clinking..