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February 15, 2011, 02:59 AM
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At The New Republic, intern Ezra Deutsch-Feldman makes a good point about the Man v. Computer battle on Jeopardy this week:
Don`t believe the hype about the new super-machine on `Jeopardy!`

"Jeopardy!"is actually a terrible way of proving that Watson is more intelligent than its opponents. ... However, if the supercomputer triumphs, it will probably be for another reason entirely: because it can activate the buzzer most quickly.

This is how the "Jeopardy!" rules work: Whoever buzzes in first-using a clicking device usually compared to a large pen-gets the first chance at answering the question. The wrinkle, however, is that the contestants have to wait until Alex Trebek is completely finished reading the question before they are allowed to buzz in. Buzz too soon, and your buzzer is "locked out" for a quarter of a second, giving opponents the chance to jump in and answer before you.

And in the recent test match between Watson, Jennings, and "Jeopardy!"champion Brad Rutter, none of the 15 questions were answered incorrectly by any of the players. In each case, the person who buzzed in first won the points associated with that clue. For all we know, all three players knew the answers to all the questions. Watson won that round, and it could easily have been because Watson was faster to the buzzer.

Indeed, when I called Watson`s creators to ask how the supercomputer controls its buzzer, they admitted that Watson does have a strong built-in advantage. According to David Shepler, who is IBM`s Challenge Program Manager for the Watson project, "The buzzer is enabled when the clue is done being read, when Alex Trebek gets to that last syllable, and the guy off stage pushes a button. That`s when people can buzz in, and at the same time a signal is sent to Watson saying the same thing-telling Watson that it can buzz in if it so desires." This is akin to playing against an opponent with near-perfect reflexes.

The main difference between Jeopardy!, which I was on in 1994, and the old College Bowl game show, which I competed in from 1978-1982, is that on College Bowl toss-up questions you could buzz in while the announcer (Art Fletcher, the original Jeopardy! moderator, when we went to Nationals in 1980) was reading the question. This made College Bowl less of a game of luck and reflexes than Jeopardy! and more a game a cognitive speed (albeit of a peculiar kind: the ability to figure out what a question was from the first few words).

The best strategy on College Bowl toss-ups was not to wait until you knew the answer, nor even to wait until you knew what the question was, but to buzz just before the moderator got to the key words that would reveal what the question was going to be. The announcer`s momentum would carry him through the next word or two. You would then have a few seconds to A) figure out what the whole question was and B) what the answer was. If you got if right, your team of four players then got a bonus question where you`d get 10 seconds to answer. If you got the toss-up question wrong, the other team got to listen to the whole thing and then had five seconds to buzz in.

To give you an example of how this worked, and why College Bowl went off the air while Jeopardy! is still on, in the Rice U. championship game in 1979, my team was down by about 100 points with a couple of minutes left, which was kind of like being down by 9 points in the basketball (before the 3-point shot was introduced). I got the final five toss-up questions and we won by 5 points. The last toss-up question went:

Announcer: "In the South Pacific, there`s Bora-Bora; in the state of Wash—"


Me: [Pause for one or two very long seconds] Walla Walla.

An example from another game demonstrated why high level College Bowl became completely baffling to a mass audience:
Announcer: "What kind of victory —"


Guy on other team: "A Pyrrhic victory."

Me to teammates [astonished]: "How did he get that?"

Teammate 1 [frustrated]: "What`s wrong with this buzzer? I totally beat him to that!"

Me: "Huh? How?"

Teammate 2 [dismissively to me, while shaking his own balky buzzer]: "What other kind of victories are there?"

In contrast, in Jeopardy!, you aren`t allowed to buzz in early, so at the Ken Jennings-level of play, it`s just a test of who buzzes in first after the arbitrary waiting period. This makes it more random, but a lot less baffling to viewers than College Bowl was.

The other notable thing about the College Bowl toss-up question was that it gave a huge advantage to youth. As a warm-up exhibition game before the 1980 Nationals, I recruited a well-balanced team of four Rice professors to play our team. One professor was Martin Wiener, now head of the history department at Rice and author of the 1981 book English Culture and the Decline of the Industrial Spirit: 1850-1980, which was to have a big influence on the Thatcher Government. Besides knowing vastly more than any of us callow undergrads, he had been on the 1966 College Bowl national championship team.

But, we undergrads dominated the toss-up questions and won in a rout.

It`s pretty scary how much faster your brain was at 21.