Earlier this week, John Henry lost to the steel driving machine. In case you missed it, IBM spent 4 years building a computer (named Watson) that would play Jeopardy! against the best contestants ever. The loss of the humans to the computer was not unexpected, but it still would have been nice to see either Ken Jennings (most wins in a row) or Brad Rutter (most total winnings) show Watson a thing or two during their epic 2-game battle.
Ken wrote an interesting essay about his experiences against Watson for the website Slate which I thoroughly enjoyed. However, I don’t think that we are going to see humans being replaced by computers on game-shows (or other competitions) any time soon.
The best part about watching a competition is to see if the contestants will be able to put their talent to good use. Will they succumb to the pressure? Who will be intimidated by whom? Can one team overcome initial mistakes, fight off the disappointment of a bad start and come back to compete well? Fighting off doubts…”I’m pretty sure I know the answer to the question, but maybe I shouldn’t ring the buzzer.” If sports and game shows were only decided by who had the most talent, no one would watch. As cruel as it sounds, we like to watch “the human condition” (aka other people suffering.)
The other thing I noticed about Watson right away is that
he it has a gigantic advantage in game strategy. If you watched the games, you could tell right away that Watson wasn’t just picking questions at random or doing everyone’s usual favorite strategy (including mine) of methodically going through one category at a time. As Ken describes in the essay, Watson was searching for Daily Doubles. And while it was funny to see Watson bet odd and seemingly random amounts of money during the many Daily Doubles it found, Watson was calculating the exact best amount it should bet to maximize the chances of winning given the current game situation.
Ken (and probably other top-level players as well) indicated that he does the same searching and I am sure that he tries to make the best bet that he can when he gets a Daily Double or in Final Jeopardy. The difference is Watson can do it in a nanosecond and will do it correctly every time. Human players don’t have the time to hem and haw and calculate after getting a Daily Double, plus there is the pressure of all of those audience eyes watching you and thinking about all the millions of TV viewers who will be watching, including your old college roommate and that cute girl in the cubicle down the way who you want to impress and all of those kids in high school who made fun of you and AHHHHHHH!!!! I’ll just make it a true Daily Double, Alex! Wait, the category is Infamous 3rd Century Rock Sculptors?!
The fun (and frustration) of watching shows like Deal or No Deal or Million Dollar Money Drop is watching humans make the wrong decision because they don’t know how the game “really” works or succumb to the pressure of TV, flashing lights and big dollar signs. We as people have a funny relationship with each other. We like to see each other do well and succeed, but only to a certain point. When someone gets a little above the crowd, we love to chop them down. Or if we can’t do it ourselves, we root for someone else to do it.
At least until our “new computer overlords” take control over humanity and make us fight each other gladiator-style for their entertainment. Then we will be wishing for a man-versus-computer quiz show.