Ken Jennings talks trivia, beats Quiz Bowl

Thursday, the Rensselaer Union-funded Speaker’s Forum hosted a talk by Jeopardy! celebrity Ken Jennings. In 2004, Jennings set the record for most consecutive Jeopardy! wins in a row: 74. From his appearances on Jeopardy!, 1 vs. 100, Grand Slam, and Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?, he also holds the all-time record for the most money won on American game shows: a grand total of $3,773,414.29. Last February, Jennings returned to the Jeopardy! stage for the IBM Challenge to face off against the language-processing computer Watson. The computer won, but Jennings still beat the other human competitor, Brad Rutter.

Around 6:30 pm, a line began to form outside DCC 308, where the talk was going to take place. Unlike many past talks, this one was sold out, although the tickets were given out for free in the Union during the previous week. By the time the event began, the lecture hall was packed.

Jennings started with a bit of background about himself. Before he was a quiz show champion, he worked as a software engineer. Throughout his winning streak, he lived a sort of double-life, flying off to California to win a few games of Jeopardy!, then going back to work the next week. “You start to realize why Spider-Man is so messed up,” he said half-jokingly.

Quickly, though, he moved on to what the RPI students in the audience actually cared about: Watson, or as Jennings referred to it, the “bajillion dollar evil supercomputer from the future.” He said that he was very glad to be a part of the challenge, even though he lost in the end. He got a tour of the machine itself (“[Watson is] the only other Jeopardy! contestant I’ve ever been inside,” he quipped) and the IBM engineers explained the DeepQA system. Jennings remarked that the algorithm that Watson used was actually very similar to what goes through his own head when he sees a trivia question.

However, he warns that Watson and other “smart” computers might pose a danger. No, they’re not going to take over the world, but outsourcing our thinking to machines could cause problems down the line, he said. “My guess is you don’t remember too many seven-digit phone numbers anymore,” he said. With the advent of smartphones and Google, information is always at our fingertips, but Jennings argued that just because you can search for the answer on the Internet, you still have to have the facts in your head sometimes. He put the argument like this: “How many facts do you need to make an informed decision? And are you going to sit and look up every one of them on your computer?”

After his talk, Jennings opened the floor to Q&A from the audience. One student asked about the “I am the 99%” parody that Jennings had posted on his blog earlier that week. He replied that, while his post had been a joke, Occupy Wall Street is a legitimate movement, saying, “These are actual real problems.”

To close the evening, the president and vice president of RPI’s Quiz Bowl team—graduate student Nimit Dhulekar and Aaron Cohen ’12—faced off against Jennings in a simulated round of Jeopardy! The categories were slightly stacked in our team’s favor: “Amazing Alumni,” “RPI General Knowledge,” “Capital Region,” “General Knowledge,” and “This is ‘Jeopardy!’”

Dhulekar opened strongly with several correct answers (well, questions) in a row, quickly taking the lead. However, as the RPI-specific categories started to dry up, Jennings began to close the distance. By the time the board was empty, Jennings and Dhulekar were tied for first place. In Final Jeopardy, though, Dhulekar lost his bet of $100, leaving Jennings as the winner. (The final scores were $900 for Jennings, $800 for Dhulekar, and -$800 for Cohen.)

After the presentation, we asked Jennings his favorite fruit, which he confided was the cherimoya. We immediately had to Google this exotic fruit—we’re obviously not trivia experts at The Poly. Still, we appreciate the masters like Jennings and RPI’s excellent Quiz Bowl team.