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Jeopardy! Champ Ken Jennings

Ken Jennings
Tuesday, February 15, 2011; 11:00 AM

Ken Jennings talks about his Jeopardy match-up with Watson the IBM supercomputer and how he and fellow competitor Brad Rutter approached the trivia game against the machine.

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Ken Jennings: Looking forward to answering your questions!

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From Twitter user michst74: Did the Watson Jeopardy experience have an "Open the pod bay doors, Hal" feel to it? It creeped me out a little.

Ken Jennings: Own it!

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Watson Jeopardy Strategy: What is your strategy for beating a computer with access to the world wide web? Buzz early and often? Or wait for it to make the wrong "educated guess"?

Ken Jennings: But it might as well be...15 trillion bytes of data from books and Internet resources--roughly the size of the printed material in the Library of Congress--have been pumped into its database.That said, yes, given Watson's many advantages, some aggressive play by the human contestants is going to be called for.

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Buzzing In: Hi Ken-Seemed to me, for many of the questions, that the computer was just better at buzzing in. Does Watson have an unfair advantage for timing the buzz-in? Thanks.

Ken Jennings: masters buzzer rhythm the best.It's not like I think Watson should try buzzing in more erratically just to give homo sapiens a chance.

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High value answers: Because you champion humans obviously do well on high value answers, wouldn't your best strategy have been to select them?

Ken Jennings: In theory!

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Watson Repeated Your Answer: Hi Ken, thanks for taking questions today! Last night, when you answered a question incorrectly, Watson buzzed in and repeated your wrong answer. Do you know if this obvious defect in Watson's programming was fixed for later rounds? It seemed like a really glaring oversight.

Ken Jennings: It's a rare hiccup, so I'm sure IBM isn't pumped that it happened in prime time last night!

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From Twitter user SusanofSmalbany: Do you think some questions or categories have been tailored with key words so Watson can more easily score?

Ken Jennings:

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Three Words: Industrial Strength Magnets.

Ken Jennings: I think you can see where this is going if the machine starts to build a big lead.

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From Twitter user POPinDC: So, Ken, do you have a backup plan that just might involve slyly tripping on Watson's cord?

Ken Jennings: This strategy brought to you by Captain Kirk, ca. 1967.

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First round: I was suprised that you only got through the first round. I found too much of the first night devoted to IBM, like a long commercial. What is the format of the next two nights?

Ken Jennings: In addition to giving IBM a nice infomercial spot (if you buy a Watson 1.0 license for home use, you also get a Watson mouse pad and some steak knives!) the documentary spots help explain how the contest came together, why this truly represents an AI breakthrough, and so forth.Revealed tonight: Watson hopes to win these games for its adorable little sister, who has leukemia!

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Decades: It was interesting to me that the "Which decade" category seemed especially hard for Watson. Why was that?

Ken Jennings: "No, let's play Global Thermonuclear War."

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The outcome: My understanding is that the shows are taped and you obviously know the outcome. You made the recent comment on MSNBC that in order to win you had to play and bet recklessly. Do humans have an advantage in terms of betting (game theory) Your comment seems to be a tell that a human won, any guidance appreciated.

Ken Jennings: In the practice games I saw, betting big on Daily Doubles and Final Jeopardy seemed like the only way to cancel out Watson's big buzzer advantage.

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I'll take Nerve-Wracking for $200.: Good morning Mr. Jennings, thank you very much for doing this chat. You are my favorite Jeopardy Champion (with the possible exception of Babu Srinivasan, who has one of the coolest names ever). My question is this: with all the Jeopardy appearances you've had, how did this one compare as far as pressure? I can imagine that such a high-profile game could potentially be nerve-wracking. Or do you instead approach every game with the same mindset, regardless of opponent?

Ken Jennings: I'm sure he appreciates the shoutout.I did feel like the underdog this time, which isn't a position I'm used to being in on Jeopardy.

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if you won....: If you are the winner, would you be willing to sit with the Watson designers to improve the machine even further? If so, what would you suggest?

Ken Jennings: If it goes amuck and kills humanity and stuff so sorry lolz my bad!

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Two games, three nights: Will a single winner be named on Wednesday after two games are played? How will the best player be determined?

Ken Jennings: Plus a pro wrestling-style "cage match" with folding chairs afterwards.

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Any more books?: Ken, you're hilarious. Not only are you the top Jeopardy champion, you've also got the most personality. Any chance you'll write any more books? I read your first in practically a day, I loved it. Your daily trivia book also has an honored place in my bathroom. Next to the litter box.

Ken Jennings: Love to you and Dad!It's about geography geeks of all kinds: antique map collectors, geocachers, pint-sized National Geographic Bee prodigies, etc.

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Daily Double selection: I want to know how Watson selected the Daily Double early in the round. It was an exception to him going top-down in the categories!

Ken Jennings: And got very lucky.Brad Rutter calls this an arms race: if one player does it, you have to join in to keep up.

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Watson: I played in the sparring matches last year at IBM Research. Watching last night shows me they have really improved Watson's response time and there are far less 'weird' responses. Does his quirky play bother you?

Ken Jennings: Common mistake!Watson, despite the four years and tens of millions dollars spent, is still much less sophisticated in that regard than our little lump of neurons.

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Sense of humor/wordplay?: Before and After is one of my favorite Jeopardy! categories. How do you think Watson might do in categories involving humor, puns, or other types of wordplay that require more thought (or at least, a different kind of thinking) than simple word association?

Ken Jennings: But then again, so are many humans that I meet, particularly the ones working rental car counters.In a sparring match, I have seen it sweep (go 5-for-5 in) a Before and After category.

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So...: Now do you know how people felt when they were competing against you?

Ken Jennings: To the 149 Ken Jennings losers back in 2004: if you are cheering for Watson right now, I forgive you.Unless you can't say "bitch" in the Washington Post, in which case karma is, uh, a fickle strumpet or something.

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Admin note: Can the Washington Post software engineers reverse this so we readers provide the answers and Jennings provides the questions? It seems appropriate.

Ken Jennings: In practice, it doesn't work so hot.

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Enjoy yourself!: Ken - you are looking grim on the show last night. Enjoy the game! Thats the one thing Watson can't do.

Ken Jennings: The future is here.

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Funny Business?: Given that it is in IBM's (marketing) interest for Watson to win, what sort of oversight (if any) exists to make sure that Watson isn't getting the questions provided to him ahead of time or any funny business isn't taking place?

Ken Jennings: They don't want their data tainted either.

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Application of technology: I have already read plenty of doomsday reports for the blue-collar workforce that this technology could replace customer service representatives, in-patient counseling, bank tellers, cashiers, etc. Do you think Watson could replace Alex Trebek? Would you be excited to be part of a game-show where a computer asked questions to another computer?

Ken Jennings: I don't know if it's doomsday, but yeah, I think it's inevitable that lots of your question-answering day will eventually be re-outsourced from some guy in India to some piece of software.It's all about the human psychology of the contest, not just the outcome.Believe me, computers have been able to play Wheel of Fortune and The Price Is Right at near-grandmaster levels for years, yet those shows soldier on.

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Intimidation factor: When you were on your epic winning streak, it seemed you were able to intimidate other players - you would get on a run and they would have that 'give up' look. Is this really part of your 'game', and how does it affect you since you since watson is immune to this?

Ken Jennings: It's Terminator, with a friendlier avatar.

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Trivia: There was an article in the Post the other day about trivia now being trivial because of the ability to look up everything in an instant. What is your take on this? Has Watson changed that? Also, just in general, how do you know so much trivia?

Ken Jennings: They're the basis for informed decisions and analytical thinking.We will be like gods to you, carried on litters to your feasts.

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"Watson": Ken, What do you think of this "man vs. machine" version of Jeopardy? I found it interesting that in the middles of last night's Jeopardy, the producers of Jeopardy showed Watson getting questions horribly wrong when they tested it a few times, so they made some fixes and had it play 100 games. It is easy to feed a machine tons of facts, but I find it more interesting when the game tests 3 HUMAN contestants. This seems gimmicky to me, and I'm a fan of the show! Your thoughts ?

Ken Jennings: The ideas surrounding artificial intelligence have always fascinated me, and Watson is an amazing breakthrough in one small corner of the field.

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Buzz-in strategy: On last night's show, I noticed you buzzing in even when you didn't know the answer right away, taking a second after Alex called on you to finish reading the question and give an answer. In your opinion, is this the only way to beat Watson?

Ken Jennings: Good human players do this all the time: you buzz when you see something that trips some "This looks familiar!" switch in your brain and count on dredging it out in the five seconds after Alex calls on you.As weird as it sounds, yes, the human brain still has a speed advantage over a 2,880-processor-core computer.

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Watson: Did Watson's voice throw you off your game at all?

Ken Jennings: "That'sh not what your mother shaid lasht night, Trebek!"

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Wednesday's final result: Which idea bothers you more: a Watson victory or a Brad Rutter victory?

Ken Jennings: That said, Brad spanked me pretty badly last time we played, so the chance for a rematch with him was a nice sidelight for me.

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Preparation for the show: How does one even begin to prepare for Jeopardy? Does the show suggest areas on which to concentrate?

Ken Jennings: It's in our DNA.

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The crowd: Was there anybody in the crowd cheering for you or were they all Watson supporters?

Ken Jennings: This was definitely an away game for humanity.

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VillageReach: Hi Ken! I also really like the charity VillageReach and am wondering how you decided to support it?

Ken Jennings: Half the human's winnings go to charity in these matches--and all of Watson's winnings, since I presume it doesn't have a mortgage to pay like Brad and I do.How could I say no?If anyone has a few bucks to spend, or is going to be playing a quiz show against a super-intelligent robot anytime soon and needs to select a charity, I highly recommend the fine folks at VillageReach.

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Ken Jennings: As they say in Tron, END OF LINE.

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