Ken Jennings — the 74-episode Jeopardy! champ who recently lost in a head-to-CPU battle with a frighteningly intuitive computer known as Watson — signed on Reddit yesterday to answer questions from adoring fans and internet weirdos.
Jennings also proved that he can be quite the comedian, starting with his username: Watsonsbitch.
One user, watupmane, asked Jennings:
“How much of your success on the show would you contribute to knowing the answers the other contestants did not versus just being able to time the buzzer clicks better than them?”
His response (emphasis mine):
“…Every night, all three contestants passed a very hard test to be there. Ergo, nearly all the contestants know nearly all the answers nearly all the time. So it just comes down to buzzer mojo. Which is why Watson won so handily…pretty hard to have better response time than a circuit board.”
Wait a minute, what? Did Jennings just say that the computer won based on a “physical” advantage, specifically sounding a buzzer faster than a human is capable of?
Watson, created by IBM, is in Jennings’ own words supposed to be a “giant leap forward in the field of natural-language processing,” like Ask Jeeves about 10 years ago — does its light speed buzzer abilities give it an unfair advantage?
Also, just what is “buzzer mojo exactly?”
Jennings seemed to reference it again, in a question about losing to another contestant, Brad Rutter:
“Yeah, I felt like the buzzer gods were not smiling on me last time Brad kicked my butt.”
Is the Jeopardy! buzzer really that fickle? According to Jennings’ website, it is. Buzzing before Alex Trebek finishes speaking will lock a contestant out of the system, while buzzing too late is, well, just that. There’s a sweet spot, apparently.
So did all of IBM’s research into the highest levels of artificial intelligence to ultimately beat a really smart human boil down to hitting a buzzer at the right time? Really?
Beyond this controversial insight, Jennings also distributed some study tips for those who want be contestants on Jeopardy! (all italics are mine, for clarity and emphasis):
“Preparation: My book Brainiac is OK for that, but Bob Harris’s book Prisoner of Trebekistan is better. (Mine is less Jeopardy-centric.) Mike Dupee’s out of print How To Get on Jeopardy…and Win is best of all.
But I think the title might be a little on-the-nose, don’t you?
Read The Dictionary of Cultural Literacy. Know world capitals. Know US presidents and their dates. Remember: by the odds, most first-timers lose, so be determined to have fun no matter what. You will also play better that way.
Don’t wear a sweater, you will look like a tool.”
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