Jeopardy! seems the least complicated of game shows: simple questions and straightforward answers, made to order for the kind of person who files facts away with the relentless precision of a computer. But hold that buzzer. The joke is on us. It turns out that America's favorite TV quiz show is a lot more complicated than you might think, demanding not just facts and quick recall covering a broad range of topics but also analysis of subtle meaning, irony, riddles and other complexities, skills at which humans excel and computers stumble over.
Such complexities have tripped up efforts to build smart interactive machines time and again in the 40 years since HAL locked Dave out of the spaceship in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Now, we suspect that failure is just around the corner again.
The folks at IBM Corp., who have been working for years to design a computer able to carry on normal question-and-answer conversations with humans, are planning to turn to the Jeopardy! game to test the soul of their new machine. They've named it "Watson," after the IBM founder, and they hope it will rival the human mind's ability to determine precise and accurate answers to subtle questions. Jeopardy! champions can say what they know within a second about 85 percent of the time. Watson's designers hope to beat that in a future televised match against Jeopardy! contestants.
If Watson wins, the payoff for IBM could be big. But odds are that at a crucial moment, Watson will have all the answers but still decide, as it did in a recent test, that "sheet" is a fruit. The reason: Watson won't be able to determine which answer is context appropriate. Which leaves us with another unanswerable question: If humans are so smart, why do they spend so much free time watching TV game shows?