Friday, February 25, 2011

The Jeopardy! IBM Challenge and What It Tells Us About Language

So who caught the Jeopardy! IBM "Man vs. Machine" Challenge that aired for Feb. 14th, 15th, and 16th? It should be, like, required viewing for all nerds, trivia geeks, etc. I mean, I like Jeopardy, and trivia, on a normal basis, but the IBM Challenge took Jeopardy to the next level--which, apparently, includes science, as well as a little bit of what most people might consider sci-fi as well.

A little background for those who don't know anything of what this is about: for the past few years, IBM has worked on creating a computer that can answer questions by reproducing the way human beings answer questions. "Watson," the computer's name, is loaded up with a ton of data, and has algorithms that allow him to pick out the key words in the Jeopardy clue, sift through his data for possible answers, and predict how likely the terms his algorithms picked out might be the answer. The scientists' hope is that one day this sort of artificial intelligence would be beneficial to, say, doctors working in an extremely isolated area, who may not have access to medical textbooks and other informational resources, may be able to plug symptoms into the database and have the computer spit back the diagnosis and its treatment. You can watch the entire 3-day challenge through Youtube if you'd like.

Varying opinions on artificial intelligence aside, I found the whole thing so very fascinating. It was not that Watson knew more than Ken Jennings or Brad Rutter; I'm fairly certain that they were all very capable of answering the majority of the questions. I'd be curious to see how they programmed Watson to, shall we say, "buzz in" to answer. Because when it comes down to it in Jeopardy, it doesn't matter how quickly you figure out the answer to the clue so much as how fast your reflexes are. So where did the IBM scientists draw the line at Watson's reflexivity? There would be no doubt that a computer's so-called "reflexes" would be much faster than a human's hand-eye coordination. I suspect that Watson answered so many questions correctly not because he knew more than Ken or Brad, but because, with his computer reflexes, he was able to buzz in more quickly than either man. This frustrates me quite a bit because it totally messes with anyone doing scientific observations, augghhhhh!

But that is an issue for IBM to consider for the future, and not what I want to focus on here.

How, you might ask, is what Watson does any different than one of us plugging a question into Google and getting back possible answers? And that's a very good, legitimate question. The difference is in how the data is stored. The Internet as we know it right now is not raw data: instead, it's data that has already been organized into "un-break-down-able" webpages by other human beings. When you type a question such as "How many U.S. presidents had/have a daughter as their oldest child?" into Google, you'll only get an answer back if someone else has already sorted through the data and written up the answer. Otherwise, you'll notice, you'll get hits for related sites, such as "children of U.S. presidents," "geneologies of U.S. presidents," and so on. It's possible, of course, to figure out how many U.S. presidents have eldest daughters via those related sites, but that takes the usual amount of time it takes a human being to solve such data organization questions.

Lots of really smart people have, in TED talks, proposed the project of something like "Internet 2.0," in which all of the data in the world is just put out there for anyone to access and play with as they want. In such a case, typing the question "How many U.S. presidents had/have a daughter as the oldest child?" will prompt the system to sift out the keywords in the question--U.S. presidents, daughter, oldest child--and then limit the data shown to just that which fits those keywords. This is essentially how Watson works. Internet 2.0 would mean that all of this data in its pure unadulterated form would be available, and if we wanted to find an answer to something via an Internet search, we wouldn't have to rely largely on earlier people already answering those questions.

The thing is, most people don't realize until it is explained to them that the way we process language and information is NOT like Internet 2.0, but much more similar to a Google search. We humans loooove patterns: we organize information in them, make patterns out of nothing if need be, remember better if given mnemonics. We remember simple childhood nursery rhymes far better than passages of prose, because rhyme and meter organize the data of language into patterns that we have a much easier time memorizing.
If I asked you to recite the letters of the alphabet, nearly all of you would start, "A, B, C, D...". (Some of you might even sing it!) No one ever considers saying the alphabet "out of order," even though if I gave you all 26 letters eventually, that technically still counts as reciting the letters of the alphabet. If I asked you to finish the ditty, "Hearts, stars, and horseshoes..." you could probably rattle off the rest of it without much conscious thought. If I told you to put the Lucky Charms marshmallow shapes in alphabetical order, it would probably take you at least a minute to do so. If you asked me to tell you which animal follows the Rabbit in the Chinese Zodiac, I could tell you... but only after I'd recited through the previous animals in the Zodiac, in Chinese. (It's dragon, by the way: long.) And so on; I'm sure you can think of more examples now.

Artificial intelligence as it currently stands does not do this. For Watson and others, they are aware of the most common way of reciting the alphabet, but if asked to recite the alphabet in random order, they could probably do it with no much more effort than they could do it in the "traditional" way. This has both its pros and cons. On the plus side, Watson can much more easily sift through raw data and come up with brand new ways to organize it. On the downside, natural language processing is really a blindingly fast mental process, as we humans take shortcuts to get to answers much more effortlessly than if we had to go through what Watson has to go through every time we wanted to get answers. And, if you watch the Jeopardy episodes, occasionally Watson does some really stupid things that no human would do, and I'm sure the IBM scientists are now scrambling over themselves trying to figure out why oh why Watson did that. (Seriously, watch it. It only takes an hour. It's incredible.)

When a human answers questions on Jeopardy, we don't do it as Watson does, sifting through all the data we possess and ranking possible answers in order of their likelihood to be correct. I don't even know how a human does it, because I haven't taken enough linguistics or cognitive science classes. All I know is that, thus far, a computer has not been able to replicate natural language processing.
Can it ever? I'm not sure. Natural language processing is what allows us to enjoy reading. It's the emotional and aesthetic connections we make while our minds process text that allows for enjoyment. We might laugh when a character makes a social blunder because we, or someone we know, have done something like that before. We cry when a character's loved one dies because we, too, know the pain of a loss of life. We sit up straighter at attention when we recognize a parallel between one text and another we read long ago. And sometimes, if we recognize too many of the same parallels between texts, that becomes a trope or a cliche, and that can diminish our enjoyment of the texts as well.

There are some things that computers are not yet able to replicate, and one of them is the interactive experience between the reader, the text, and the world in which both of them exist.

I challenge you to think about that the next time you open a book.


  1. Interesting post - I watched the Watson challenge and I agree that the computer's buzz-in time was just so much faster than a human could do it.

    It was strange to watch at some points, especially when Alex admonished Watson.

    "No, Watson, that answer has already been given by Ken"

    as if Watson was going to say, "My bad."

    I was completely fascinated by the capabilities of this computer, although I kept expecting the whole thing to turn into 2001: A Space Odyssey.

  2. I'm completely in awe of this post. I watched all three shows with Watson and thought, "how fun." I never took the next step to think about what it means for how humans process language.

    I did come across a Q & A chat with Ken Jennings and he makes some interesting points about how Watson was given the information - for instance, there were no audio or video Daily Doubles b/c as of right now, Watson can't process audio or visual data - it has to be in language form that can be broken down into bytes. As Jennings said, Watson was both deaf and blind to the events of the game - he didn't know if the other player got the wrong answer - he only knew if they got the right answer.

    Here's the link, if you're interested:

  3. I just watched this and it was awesome! It was funny though how Watson would get easy stuff wrong. And I totally think he had a really fast reaction time because even I knew some of the answers so Ken and Brad definitely should have too.

    I have a linguistics class this semester and it tries to break down how we use and process language but it's really complex because our brain is still somewhat of a mystery. The fact that we can now put this info into a computer is amazing!

  4. Yep I watched Watson on Jeopardy! It's been fun and I have been rooting for the machine. :)

    I don't think IBM scientists are scrambling over why Watson answered things the way he did though. I think they know why he responded the way he did to a lot of the things he got wrong. They've been posting about it online. Here's a good one on the airport clue:

    And I've been really loving the posts at the ibm research blog (Watson's strategy, how he wagers, "speaking/hearing/seeing" to play Jeopardy!)

    Also there is a cool video about Watson's face -

    Yes.. I have been kind of obsessed. *running off now*!

  5. Fascinating. I really should watch it. I was reading an article in the Atlantic about AI too--I liked the way they pointed out that Big Blue never played again after winning. Wonder what'll happen to Watson now.

  6. I support your point of view.

    BTW, I just awarded you the "From Me To You Award"


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