SC11: How this professor cleaned Watson’s clock

Ethan Miller with Watson at SC11 this week.

IBM’s Watson supercomputer, or at least a simulation of it, is in Seattle this week for the SC11 supercomputer conference. I got a chance to stop by and see attendees test their Jeopardy! skills against the machine that reigned supreme on the quiz show last year.

And for the most part, Watson seemed infallible, dropping challengers left and right, just as Watson foil Ken Jennings predicted when he talked with us recently.

But then came Ethan Miller, a professor in the UC Santa Cruz Storage Systems Research Center, who stepped up to the kiosk and made Watson look like a complete beginner — answering practically every question correctly and prevailing with more than 12,000 points, about three times Watson’s score.

Afterward, when I asked Miller for his secret, he was coy at first.

“I read a lot?” he said with a smile. “I don’t know.”

As we talked more, however, he revealed one of his tricks: He started with the harder clues, the high-value ones at the bottom of the board, under the theory that it would be tougher for Watson’s algorithms to handle the difficult clues without first getting a feel for the category on the easy ones. Miller also got the sense that the kiosk version of Watson is a less ruthless than the Jeopardy version when it comes to buzzing in quickly.

Of course, it doesn’t hurt to be smart. Miller was on his school’s It’s Academic team and enjoyed reading the encyclopedia as a kid. And yes, he has more than a little experience with Jeopardy, having tried out for the show in the past.

Granted, the sixth floor of the Seattle convention center isn’t exactly the pressure cooker of the Jeopardy stage. But for now, at least, it looks like this machine has met its match.

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  • Guest

    Congratulations to Prof. Miller on defeating Watson! Hopefully this will assuage everyone’s fears about “our new computer overlords.”