“Jeopardy!”is actually a terrible way of proving that Watson is more intelligent than its opponents. ... However, if the supercomputer triumphs, it will probably be for another reason entirely: because it can activate the buzzer most quickly.This is how the “Jeopardy!” rules work: Whoever buzzes in first—using a clicking device usually compared to a large pen—gets the first chance at answering the question. The wrinkle, however, is that the contestants have to wait until Alex Trebek is completely finished reading the question before they are allowed to buzz in. Buzz too soon, and your buzzer is “locked out” for a quarter of a second, giving opponents the chance to jump in and answer before you.
And in the recent test match between Watson, Jennings, and “Jeopardy!”champion Brad Rutter, none of the 15 questions were answered incorrectly by any of the players. In each case, the person who buzzed in first won the points associated with that clue. For all we know, all three players knew the answers to all the questions. Watson won that round, and it could easily have been because Watson was faster to the buzzer.
Indeed, when I called Watson’s creators to ask how the supercomputer controls its buzzer, they admitted that Watson does have a strong built-in advantage. According to David Shepler, who is IBM’s Challenge Program Manager for the Watson project, “The buzzer is enabled when the clue is done being read, when Alex Trebek gets to that last syllable, and the guy off stage pushes a button. That’s when people can buzz in, and at the same time a signal is sent to Watson saying the same thing—telling Watson that it can buzz in if it so desires.” This is akin to playing against an opponent with near-perfect reflexes.
Announcer: "What kind of victory --"
Guy on U. of Chicago team: "A Pyrrhic victory."
Art Fleming (unflappable as always, but still): "... Correct!"
Me to teammates [astonished]: "How did he get that?"
Teammate 1 [frustrated]: "What's wrong with this buzzer? I totally beat him to that!"
Me: "Huh? How?"
Teammate 2 [dismissively to me, while shaking his own balky buzzer]: "What other kind of victories are there?"
Another example of why high level College Bowl became completely baffling to a mass audience: In the Rice U. championship game in 1979, my team was down by about 100 points with a couple of minutes left, which was kind of like being down by 9 points in the basketball (before the 3-point shot was introduced). I got the final five toss-up questions and we won by 5 points. The last toss-up question went:
Announcer: "In the South Pacific, there's Bora-Bora; in the state of Wash--"
Me: [pausing for a couple of very long seconds while I tried to figure out why I buzzed in] ... Walla Walla.