Jeopardy!’s Watson Competes Against Business Students

Students at Harvard Business School joined the long list of supercomputer Watson’s victims in a game of Jeopardy! Monday on campus—but they went out with a fight.

The HBS students competed against Watson and MIT Sloan students as part of an information technology symposium featuring Watson’s creator IBM and hosted by the two schools.

The team, comprising Jonas P. Akins, Jayanth J. Iyengar, and Genevieve M. Sheehan, took second-place in the tournament with a total score of $42,399, losing to Watson’s $53,601.

But the Harvard team outplayed its MIT counterpart, which came away with $100.

Watson drew an early lead in the game, correctly answering questions in categories such as “Who’s Your Daddy Company” and “Tech-Tonics.”

But on a high-value Double Jeopardy question—”What type of ball was the fictional character Wilson in Cast Away?”—the HBS team temporarily took the lead by $3,000 before eventually falling to Watson.

Sheehan and Iyengar, who have both also competed on the broadcast version of Jeopardy!, commented on how the experience with Watson compared with their experiences on the show.

“The TV lights that they use on the set are much brighter,” Sheehan joked. “But there’s still that similar feeling of excitement, though now in front of a live crowd full of your peers.”

Jeanne Y. Hwang, an HBS student in the audience cheering for the team, said that she found the team’s performance to be commendable.

“I was very impressed by the showing of both teams, especially HBS,” she said. “The students were able to compete so well against a machine that’s been programmed with nearly limitless information. It goes to show how wide our breadth of knowledge is, even though we don’t have Watson’s ability to rapidly process data.”

Watson, named after IBM’s first president Thomas J. Watson, was developed by a team of researchers using IBM’s DeepQA technology, which allows Watson to answer questions that are posed in natural languages.

To test its abilities, Watson appeared on Jeopardy! in February in the first ever match-up between human and non-human contestants.

Containing four terabytes of disk storage, including every entry published in Wikipedia, Watson beat his record-holding competitors, Brad Rutter and Ken Jennings, to win the tournament’s $1 million prize, which IBM donated to charity.

David Ferrucci, the principal investigator of the research team that built Watson, discussed the development process on Monday.

He said Watson, like humans, has the ability to learn through interaction with others, but can process data and draw conclusions much more quickly.

“It’s amazing to see how the machine gets smarter by interacting with its users,” he said. “A human has to weigh multiple decisions when looking at data, though, while Watson has the ability to do so instantaneously.”

Bernard S. Meyerson, the vice president of innovation and academic programs at IBM, said that the technology behind Watson has the potential to revolutionize the healthcare industry by diagnosing users.

“If someone were to present [a rare] disease, a doctor would have to spend months researching the symptoms and effects of it,” he said. “Watson, though, has the capability to process all of the writings on the disease at once and can produce a diagnosis in a fraction of the time.”

—Staff writer Matthew M. Beck can be reached at mbeck@college.harvard.edu.

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