If you watched “Jeopardy!” last night, you saw an IBM supercomputer named Watson cream two human champions — at least until it made a few dumb mistakes late in the round and allowed Brad Rutter to tie things up. But you also saw Watson’s “face” — the swirling electronic avatar that Alex Trebek dryly rebuked when it buzzed in with an incorrect answer that Ken Jennings had already made. (Guess we shouldn’t fear a robot uprising quite yet.)
In true corporate form, IBM decided that Watson’s face should look like its own Smarter Planet logo. Davis took the globe motif and added a swarm of particles — a single “leader” chased by the others — to spin around on the globe’s surface, indicating that Watson is “thinking.”
Watson uses a slew of complicated algorithms to parse every “Jeopardy!” clue, gather possible answers, and weight each guess according to how “confident” it is that the guess is correct. Davis visually represents these patterns in 27 possible states that the avatar can be in. Generally, when Watson is confident in its guess, the particles swarm to the top of the globe and glow green; when Watson is not confident, they flow to the bottom and glow orange. And while Alex Trebek is making chitchat at the podium or reading off clues, the avatar pulses a cool IBM blue.
Watching Watson’s avatar while it plays really does add an extra thrill to the game — you actually start rooting for or against it, just like a real player. (At least, I did.) I even felt sorry for it, watching it make its “high confidence” expression before whiffing a painfully obvious answer. I’m not sure I want Watson to win the “Jeopardy!” match in the end, but by giving it a face, Joshua Davis has made IBM’s bloodless room of computer servers feel like a worthy opponent.