Watson returns to RPI, defeats students

THE CONTESTANTS TAKE the stage and prepare to do battle. From left to right: Lee Croak ’61, Joseph Wiegartner ’15, Watson, Barry Fiskin ’61, and Vinny Butrus ’15.

On Saturday, everybody’s favorite robot that isn’t CGI stopped by. Watson, the golden god of Jeopardy, and project lead David Ferruci ’94 came to explain how Watson functions and play an actual Jeopardy game. The event took place in the Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center where a mountain of free “I heart Watson” T-shirts were waiting to be swooped up by the liver-spotted hands of our alumni and anyone else who attended the event.

for IBM, where he became a lead in the Watson Grand Challenge.

Ferruci explained that Watson was once a mortal when it came to being Jeopardy player. In 2007, Watson still answered less than 50 percent of the questions it was asked correctly. To get to the level where Jeopardy champions were, Watson was going to have to make a huge jump in performance over the next four years. Ferruci knew his job was being scored with Watson’s answers, and began to introduce new algorithms and data into Watson. A big leap was needed and it was made. By 2009, Watson was able to compete at champion level and competed against actual past Jeopardy winners for testing.

The steps Watson takes to process a question were explained in depth. It takes the question and makes multiple interpretations of it, then uses it to look at over 100 sources and think of 100 possible answers. Then Watson will look at over a thousand pieces of evidence for the answers and then put them into multiple deep analysis algorithms. Finally, it balances and combines the results and picks the most favorable answer. In February, before the televised game of Watson against Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter, Ferruci told his boss that even if they lost, it would still be okay because then it would show the limit of the technology. His boss immediately told him, “No, we have to win.” Luckily for him, Watson came through.

After Ferruci was done speaking, the fun part of the show began. Todd Crain, the host of the Jeopardy games between Watson and past winners, came on stage to host a Jeopardy game. Watson was already set up ahead of time in the center between two podiums across stage from a podium for Crain. A projector slide came down to show the categories and scores for the upcoming game. It wasn’t as lavish as the regular Jeopardy game, but instead was, as Crain correctly called it, a “ghetto version of the game show Jeopardy.”

In honor of the alumni weekend and to compete against the deity of game shows, Watson’s opponents were teams of two, made up of one alumnus and one student each. On the left was Team Protists, which was made up of Lee Croak ’61 and freshman Joseph Wiegartner. On the other side was the clearly better named group, Team Raptors, which consisted of Barry Fiskin ’61, whose team went undefeated in the GE College Bowl, and freshman Vinny Butrus. When the players were finished being introduced, the game started and the first set of categories was revealed.

Going from left to right, the categories were Who’s Your Daddy Company, The World Series MVP Team, Tech-Tonics, Countries Ending in “E,” Scrambled State Capitals, and Good Sportsmanship. At this point Crain told us that if you try to buzz in before you’re allowed to answer, your buzzer is turned off for .25 seconds. Unfortunately for the contestants, Watson takes 10 milliseconds to answer if he knows it for sure. Apparently contestants have been able to time the button press to beat Watson out, but it certainly isn’t a simple feat.

Scrambled State Capitals for 200 is picked first. Right off the bat Watson gets the first correct answer. During the second question, Crain had to remind the crowd that they weren’t allowed to scream out the answers if they weren’t on the stage; the divine machine Watson can only handle so much competition. After Scrambled State Capitals, Who’s Your Daddy Company, and Countries Ending in “E” were cleared out, the score stood at Protists 600, Watson 5000, and Team Raptors 2600. Despite the gap, Fiskin was proving he hasn’t lost his touch. The game continued, and at the last question, Sportsmanship for 1000, the Raptors got the Daily Double. The score stood at Protists 2000, Watson 8200, and Raptors 5200. If they bet it all, they could get the lead against Watson! Instead, they only bet 2000, but got chided by the crowd to bet 3100. Either way, they got it wrong and the crowd let out a groan of dismay. The score at the end of the first round was Protists 2000, Watson 8200, and Raptors 2100.

The second round started immediately with the categories Presidential Rhyme Time, The New York Time Dining and Wine, Having a Ball, 11-Letter Words, Before and After Goes to the Movies, and The Northernmost Capital City. The Protists started off, picking Before and After Goes to the Movies for 400. The goal of this category is to recognize the two movies referenced and combine them into one title. That was really confusing for every organism in the room and led Watson to clear the category itself, increasing its score to 14200 points. However, the next category, Presidential Rhyme Time, was all humans. An answer for this category would be something like Bush’s tushes. The Raptors got a true Daily Double correct and the category ended with Protists 5600, Watson 14200, and Raptors 6600. Watson must have suddenly developed feelings, all of hatred and vengeance, as it took every single point in The Northernmost Capital, getting up to 20200. Team Raptors decided to step its game up and The New York Time Dining and Wine ended with Protists 5600, Watson 25800, and Raptors 7000. It was looking hopeless. But then, during Having a Ball, the Raptors got the final Daily Double with 9000 points available! And yet they only bet 2500 points.

, and they easily got it correct. Fiskin, our John Connor, let us down. Butrus tried to put the blame on Fiskin, but his pleas for forgiveness fell on deaf ears and working ones as well—we weren’t hearing it. The rest was history and the second round ended with Protists 9200, Watson 29800, and Raptors 12300. The final Jeopardy answer was Mount Rushmore, which both Watson and the Raptors got right, while the Protists ended the game with 1 point. Todd congratulated the contestants and the champion Watson, who secured its champion belt for another round with a score of 34999 over the Raptors who totaled 24600.

A brief Q&A session run by Ferruci about Watson happened after the game. There was only time for three questions which were answered briefly before the event ended. Overall, the event was very enjoyable and left me leaving with a smile on my face and a free t-shirt in my backpack. Of course my favorite part was hearing RPI students leaving the event angrily complaining about how Crain jokingly made fun of Wiegartner’s major, biochem, which he called easy! They couldn’t believe Crain thought the major was easy and thoroughly believed that 90 percent of the people in the room were smarter than a guy like him. It’s funny how even though Watson is a robot, he still has a better sense of humor than some of our peers.