WFU students watch a computer beat human contestants on Jeopardy!

2.17.2011 Article, General, School News

Reposted from Winston-Salem Journal | by John Hinton

The human contestants on "Jeopardy!" didn't stand a chance to beat Watson, the IBM supercomputer.

And most of the Wake Forest University students who gathered Wednesday night in the Benson University Center to watch the final night of the competition knew it.

"I think the humans were a little frustrated," said Ryan McBreen, a second-year student pursuing a master's degree in business at WFU. "You could see that on Ken Jennings' face."

McBreen was among the 40 graduate and undergraduate students who gathered in Pugh Auditorium to watch Watson easily defeat veteran "Jeopardy!" champs Jennings and Brad Rutter.

More than 70 universities nationwide, including Wake Forest, staged viewing parties to watch Watson crush his human opponents. The long-touted three-day competition was called the Jeopardy! IBM Challenge and tested whether Watson could answer questions faster and more accurately than human contestants.

He could. Watson's winning score was $41,413 for the day ($77,147 overall), while Jennings notched $19,200 ($24,000 overall) and Rutter reached $11,200 ($21,600 overall).

Watson received a total prize of $1 million, which IBM has said will go to the charities World Vision and World Community Grid. Jennings and Rutter get $300,000 and $200,000, respectively. Each man said he would donate half his winnings to charity.

Wednesday night's battle was pitched. Unlike Tuesday, when Watson breezed through most of the half-hour program, Watson seemed distracted and not quite on his game Wednesday. His opponents, meanwhile, chimed in with such correct responses as Ikea, Robert De Niro, and F1 (the computer key that's also the abbreviation for Grand Prix auto racing).

"In a way, you wanted the humans to win," said Catherine Ramos, who is working toward a master's degree in management.

But her friends John Cano and Charles Czysz didn't expect Jennings or Rutter to beat the computer, which is named after IBM founder Thomas J. Watson and has 200 million pages of content. Cano also is pursing a master's degree in management, and Czysz is a freshman biology major.

Cano said that Watson won because it buzzed in much quicker than Jennings or Rutter.

"I for one welcome our new computer overlords," Jennings wrote alongside his correct Final Jeopardy response ("Dracula" author Bram Stoker), apparently trading on a line from "The Simpsons."

Over the past four years, a team of IBM scientists built Watson, a computer that rivals humans' ability to answer questions posed in a natural language with speed, accuracy and confidence, said Jim Lanning of Greensboro, an IBM regional solutions executive.

"It is really cool stuff, but it is hard to do," said Lanning, who watched along with the Wake students. "It is the next frontier of computing."