Thursday, June 17, 2010

Huh? Confused IBM Supercomputer "Watson" Thinks "Police Academy" Actress Colleen Camp Might Own HBO!

It turns out that "Watson," the IBM supercomputer currently challenging NYT readers to a trivia game on its website, still has a few kinks in his program.

Or maybe we just conjure a slightly different image when we hear the word "supercomputer" -- as in, a machine that doesn't think that Abe Lincoln's favorite form of hatwear was a sombrero.

The NYT Magazine cover story this Sunday is devoted to the latest advance in artificial intelligence: an IBM supercomputer that answers complex questions in ways that mirror human thought. It uses the "Jeopardy" format to compete with people on matters of historical and cultural trivia, and the story reports that it typically wins -- deducing information about Sherlock Holmes and Roy Scheider that would stump mere mortals.

But when we played "Watson" late last night, we were a bit surprised at the results. It turns out "Watson" was programmed to correctly answer only 17 out of 30 questions -- not nearly enough to impress The NYTPicker, let alone a true super-brain like, say, Alex Trebek.

Confused, we settled in to read Clive Thompson's "Smarter Than You Think," a 6,315-word cover story, that was interesting enough -- though it skimped a bit on facts (no mention of how much it cost IBM to develop "Watson") and seemed a bit promotional for our tastes. At one point, Thompson even acknowledges that the idea for "Watson" stemmed from IBM's need for some fresh media attention.

Smart idea, guys -- it worked!

The story briefly notes Watson's shortcomings, including its occasional and odd obsessions with irrelevant answers. Apparently it all too often responds to questions, inexplicably, with the words "Tommy Lee Jones."

But it seems a bit odd for the NYT to devote that much space and attention to a supercomputer that we can beat handily in a trivia standoff at two in the morning, after a long day of NYTPicking.

Still, we're grateful for the distraction. Otherwise we would have been forced to write a post about Hilary Stout's Styles cover story today -- the one that claims experts are discouraging kids from having "best friends."

Sorry, Hilary, your story is not correct! Try again.


Anonymous said...

I like a lot of the website's interactive games but this one felt like a trade-off for IBM advertising.

Anonymous said...

The Watson is a know-nothing piece of bed and circuit by any stretch, and this vacuous claim here that it models thought is found a tad overboard, cause the version runs entirely alien to affections and say NYT promotes IBM potential by trying their fist at reportage for change--something that should’ve been done, long ago--gotto get down to it on the ground, as in, past the next predictable thought: “but we don’t have the resources, not our fault.” The advertising misnomer is a what if esp. since 'game' is used as an understatement of the supercomputer approach. Suppose it's ok to mislead to divert focus on true potential, but since in the 'all fun and games until else' setup the losers lose, it's not a 'trade-off', it's a trivial sacrifice.