Why Watson Wagered $947, and Other Intel on the Jeopardy Supercomputer

Last night, Fast Company watched the final match with two of the IBM researchers responsible for Jeopardy champ Watson’s prowess. This is what we learned.


In case you haven’t heard, computers inched a bit closer to besting humanity this week when IBM’s Watson supercomputer handily beat opponents Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter in a three-night Jeopardy tournament. Last night, Fast Company had the chance to watch the final match with John Prager and Burns Lewis, two of the IBM researchers responsible for the prowess of Watson, a device capable of natural language processing, knowledge representation, information retrieval, and reasoning algorithms. This is what we learned.

  • On night two of the match, Watson incorrectly answered “Toronto” to the Final Jeopardy question of which city is home to airports named for a World War II hero and a famous World War II battle. (Answer: Chicago.) There are multiple explanations for this. Watson had learned in general that the category (in this case, U.S. Cities) is not necessarily a reliable determinant of the answer. There are multiple towns named Toronto in the U.S, the Toronto Blue Jays play in the American league, and Toronto is an “American-style city,” explains Prager. In any case, Watson’s confidence in its answer was very low. In other words, the computer knew that it might be wrong. That’s why Watson bet just $947.
  • Watson used 3,000 parallel IBM Power7 processors in its Jeopardy run–a feature that allowed the supercomputer to respond to queries in three seconds. Before installing the processors, Watson took up to two hours to answer a question. Now Watson takes three seconds to answer a question no matter what it is, so in many cases, humans have the advantage of speed.
  • Watson’s mechanical hand takes between six and 10 milliseconds to push down the Jeopardy buzzer. Humans can push down the buzzer in as little as zero to one milliseconds.
  • Watson’s quirky Daily Double and Final Jeopardy wagers–$347, $947, $17,973–are a goof from IBM. “The guy programming it thought it would be boring [to end wagers with a 0],” Prager explains. So the programmer ever-so-slightly tweaked Watson’s wagers “to give Alex Trebek something to talk about.”
  • Watson wasn’t connected to the Internet during its Jeopardy run–instead, Watson downloaded  “textual resources” a few weeks beforehand. This ensured that Watson wouldn’t be a cultural laggard on the show. “We knew the clues had been written some time ago,” Prager says.
  • In one instance during the Jeopardy run, Watson repeated a wrong answer from another contestant. IBM knew that might happen, but thought the chances were statistically insignificant enough to ignore the issue. The fact that Watson came up with the same wrong answer as a human was just bad luck.
  • At certain points during the match, Watson jumped around to different categories in a seemingly random fashion. At other points, the supercomputer stuck with single categories. The reason? Watson was trying to find Daily Doubles.

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About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more