Greg Lindsay's Blog

January 25, 2011  |  permalink

Final Jeopardy

Excerpt from Stephen Baker’s Final Jeopardy: Man vs. Machine and the Quest to Know Everything presented without comment:

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The real problems started when Watson found itself facing Greg Lindsay, a journalist and a two-time Jeopardy champion. Lindsay, thirty-two, spent much of his time at the University of Illinois on the Quiz Bowl circuit, where he occasionally ran into Ken Jennings. In order to spar with Watson, Lindsay had to sign David Shepler’s nondisclosure agreement. IBM wanted to keep Harry Friedman and his minions in the dark, as much as possible, about Watson’s strengths and vulnerabilities. And Friedman didn’t want the clues escaping onto the Internet before they aired on television. This meant that even if Lindsay defeated Watson, he wouldn’t be able to brag about it to the Quiz Bowl community. For his crowd, this would be the equivalent of besting Kobe Bryant in a one-on-one game of hoops, then having to pretend it hadn’t happened.

Even so, Lindsay came with a clear strategy to defeat Watson. He quickly saw that Watson mastered factoids but struggled with humor and irony, so he steered clear of Watson-friendly categories. He figured Watson would clean up on Name that Continent, picking out the right landmasses for Estado de Matto Grosso (“What is South America?”) and the Filchner Ice Shelf (“What is Antarctica?”). The category Superheroes Names through Pictures looked much more friendly to humans. Sure enough, Watson was bewildered by clues such as “X marks the spot, man, when this guy opens his peeper” (“What is cyclops?”). Band Names also posed problems for Watson because the clues, like this one, were so murky: “The soul of a deceased person, thankful to someone for arranging his burial” (“What is the Grateful Dead?”). If the clue had included the lead guitarist Jerry Garcia or a famous song by the band, Watson could have identified it in an instant. But clues based on allusions, not facts, left it vulnerable.

More important, since the currency they were playing with was worthless, he decided to bet the maximum on each Daily Double. If he blew it, he lost nothing. And since he wasn’t on national television, his reputation wouldn’t suffer. As he put it, “There’s no societal fear.” Yet if he won his big bets, he’d be positioned to withstand Watson’s inevitable charges through categories it understood. “I knew he would go on tears,” Lindsay said. “I had to build up big leads when I had the chance.” He aced his big bets and ended up thrashing Watson three times, once scoring an astronomical $59,999 of funny money. (The Jeopardy single-game record was $52,000 until Ken Jennings crushed it, winning $75,000 in his thirty-eighth game.)

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Greg Lindsay is a journalist, urbanist, and speaker. He is a contributing writer for Fast Company and an author of the international bestseller Aerotropolis: The Way We’ll Live Next. He is also a visiting scholar at New York University’s Rudin Center for Transportation Policy & Management, a senior fellow of the World Policy Institute, and a research affiliate of the New England Complex Systems Institute (NECSI).

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