Watson is winning at buzzing, not Jeopardy

It’s been inspiring to watch IBM’s Watson kicking butt on Jeopardy, since I am a scientific programmer and understand the difficulty of the problem the Watson team is attempting to solve. However, I can’t help but notice that Watson seems to be having much better luck nailing the buzzer, compared to its human counterparts.

Years ago, a family friend ended up on Jeopardy, and after the experience, she commented that she had underestimated the importance of finessing the buzzer. A Google search for “jeopardy buzzer” turns up quite a few pages, including this very informative page entitled “How to Win on the Buzzer”, by Michael Dupee, a former Jeopardy contestant.

It’s not clear to me how Watson is notified that Alex Trebek has finished reading the clue, but it seems pretty clear to me that no matter how you do it, the computer clearly has an advantage. If, for instance, the computer is simply sent a signal that is wired in to the same system that the off-stage assistant uses to enable the human contestants’ buzzers, then the computer can instantly respond with almost zero latency as soon as it gets the signal. There is no way that a human can compete with that, because the humans that rely on the pin light to notify them of buzzer activation will always be late. Alternatively, those that try to “time” the assistant and guess when he feels Trebek has finished reading the clue will never have the microsecond accuracy that Watson has.

Alternatively, if a direct signal is not sent, but rather Watson is equipped with an audio sensor to process Trebek’s voice as he reads the clue, it’s very easy to write a simple optimization routine that quickly learns when the assistant activates the buzzers. Watson can expend a tiny, minuscule fraction of a single processor to this task, and still be orders of magnitude more accurate at timing than its human competitors.

The point is that if one were to replace Watson with a human being that is every bit as knowledgeable and capable as Watson, the human being would not fare nearly as well in competition, simply because his or her motor response cannot beat that of a specialized robot. So, while Watson’s ability to understand and solve open-ended Jeopardy clues is certainly impressive, the reason he is trouncing the humans seems to have more to do with robotics rather than reasoning.

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