Recently, a celebrity of the highest order visited the engineering school where I work. Not Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg. It was none other than Watson, arguably the most famous piece of technology created in the last decade.
Watson’s star power was on full display, filling not only our largest auditorium, but also two overflow rooms we had set aside just in case a few extra folks showed up. What a testament to where we are today; our own recent history has shown that not even astronauts can draw budding engineers the way Watson can.
IBM’s latest celebrity computer gained fame when he (or is it she?) took on the two greatest winners in the history of the long-running game show Jeopardy in a three-day battle of the octagon with $1 million going to the winner.
Brad Rutter, all-time money winner, and Ken Jennings, record-holder for longest championship streak, seemed to have a huge advantage. The game is a wicked combination of two competing and quite demanding skills -- instantly intuiting the meaning behind cryptic clues across a wide range of random categories combined with the rapid retrieval of often esoteric and obscure facts. This was truly David versus Goliath, but what made this good TV was that no one really knew who was the real David or the real Goliath.
It turned out to be a big ratings winner for the show and network, pulling in a hefty 9.1 percent of the surveyed TVs. Why the fascination? Well, Jeopardy is not only part of American culture, but the show also puts on display the amazing abilities of humans keen on being the biggest know-it-all in the nation.
Fortunately for IBM and its shareholders, Watson emerges as the dominant player -- amassing more winnings than both Rutter and Jennings combined. Of course, it wasn’t certain at the outset. Day one ended with Watson and Rutter tied for the lead, providing the cliffhanger the producers had hoped for. But like Deep Blue versus Kasparov years before, the consistent humming drive of Watson seemed to emotionally exhaust the human competitors over the final two days.