Ellen Gray: On 'Jeopardy,' it's men vs. machine

Most-winning "Jeopardy!" champ Ken Jennings is one of the challengers of an IBM supercomputer called Watson.
Most-winning "Jeopardy!" champ Ken Jennings is one of the challengers of an IBM supercomputer called Watson.
Posted: February 14, 2011

JEOPARDY. 7 tonight, Channel 6.

WHO IS Watson?

If you're a "Jeopardy" fan, you probably already know: Watson is the IBM supercomputer that for the next three nights will be seen taking on the game show's two biggest winners, Brad Rutter and Ken Jennings.

I think I'm rooting for the machine. (Watson, not Jennings.)

If you're a fan of PBS' "Nova," you probably also know Watson as the putative hero of an unfinished, but so far "Rocky"-like, story in which computers were, at least at first, the underdogs, unable to understand, for instance, why "Who is Peter Sellers?" couldn't possibly be the question that went with, "In 1698, this comet discoverer took a ship called the Paramour Pink on the first purely scientific sea voyage."

Real question: "Who is Edmond Halley?" Who never appeared in any of the "Pink Panther" movies that seem to have confused the computer.

(Missed last week's "Nova" episode, "Smartest Machine on Earth"? It's available for streaming online at pbs.org or through the network's free apps for the iPhone and iPad.)

When some of the humans behind the "Jeopardy" challenge spoke with TV critics in January, the final showdown between men and machine hadn't yet taken place, and, honestly, my questions for them were simpler than you'll ever hear on "Jeopardy."

Why Watson? Why not Sherlock?

Why "Jeopardy"? What's so special about the game that we see it as a particular challenge for Watson?

"Watson, because the founder of IBM is T.J. Watson, and thought it was a nice play on words and also something that reminds us of the founder," said David Ferruci, who leads the Semantic Analysis and Integration Department at IBM's T.J. Watson Research Center, and seems to be the closest thing Watson has to a corner man.

"But I think why 'Jeopardy' is because 'Jeopardy's' really a fascinating, fascinating game that challenges a computer to deal with language, to look at an usually broad domain," Ferrucci said.

"So you can't anticipate ahead of time that there's just going to be a question about a particular one topic or it's going to be phrased any one way. So you have that breadth.

"You also have to have that precision. You have to have the right answer in the top spot. No points for second or third place or somewhere in the Top 10 documents. You have to have that confidence. You have to know that you've got it right, otherwise you don't want to risk buzzing in, and you have to do it really, really quickly."

"Jeopardy" executive producer Harry Friedman said he didn't get it, either, "until it was made clear to us that this was something unique and something special and that 'Jeopardy' in itself, by its design, was the perfect platform for developing this technology."

Taking home the $1 million prize pool isn't the object of the exercise - if a human wins, he'll keep half his winnings and the other half will go to charity. If Watson wins, all its winnings will be donated.

So what is the point?

Well, just as shooting for the moon legendarily led to the creation of Velcro (NASA actually says it was a 1940s Swiss invention), training Watson to beat Rutter and Jennings is meant to make computers more helpful.

"We looked at 'Jeopardy' as a challenge that drives the technology, not, obviously, as an end goal," Ferruci said.

"Imagine in medicine doing a differential diagnosis where we have algorithms that look at the family history, the patient history, the tests, the findings, the symptoms, what it discovers in journals, abstracts or electronic medical records . . . and gives the professional access to all that information over a huge breadth," he said. "That's powerful technology."

Maybe Watson should take on Fox's "House" next.

Would Watson get 'Mad'?

I might be more impressed by Watson if I didn't suspect that it, or one of its nerdier brothers, was moonlighting in sitcoms.

Because if you were to digitize all the scripts for romantic comedies ever, feed them into such a machine and ask it to fill 22 minutes of prime time, broken up by commercials, the result might come close to CBS' "Mad Love" (8:30 tonight, Channel 3).

The concept - two romantic leads (played here by Sarah Chalke and Jason Biggs) fall instantly in love while their best buds (Judy Greer and Tyler Labine) don't - isn't far off from "Gavin & Stacey," a funnier British sitcom in which the buds (James Corden and Ruth Jones) steal the show, probably because Corden and Jones also write it.

But this isn't that show, or even the so-far-unproduced U.S. version.

No, this is "Mad Love," which takes a good cast - however tired I am of Labine playing the same guy - and forces them to try to make themselves heard over people who seem to think everything they say is hilarious.

Maybe Watson will be able to figure out why. I couldn't. *

Send e-mail to graye@phillynews.com.

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