Jeopardy! Man v. IBM Computer Matches: Simply a Matter of Time

Thanks to my own 13 games of Jeopardy! and the book about it and all, lots of people (including the New York Times) have asked for my opinion about the whole IBM computer vs. Ken Jennings vs. Brad Rutter cage match.

I'll say here what I've said all along: when you're playing at million-dollar tournament level, all of the players know (or can rapidly figure out) nearly all of the correct responses, no matter how arcane. Trust me, I've been there.

IBM wouldn't unveil their computer unless they were sure it would function similarly. 

Ultimately, the difference between winning or losing usually comes down just to the ability to time the milliseconds between the time Alex finishes the clue and one of the producers activates the signaling devices.

Since a computer can obviously react more rapidly and consistently than a human can, it will probably win unless it is programmed to have a human-like random delay of a few milliseconds before hitting the buzzer.

Judging from news reports about the warm-up game, the computer has no such delay, and can buzz in instantly.

So that's the computer's advantage: not knowledge, not processing speed, not math or game strategy… just reflexes. And so unless the buzzer-response is programmed differently in the games that count, I think the computer is likely to win.

Brad and Ken will both be still a heck of a lot more fun to hang out with after the game, though.

(Full disclosure: Brad and Ken are both friends of mine, so I have some emotional interest in seeing them do well against the cyborg. Also, I was invited to play the computer in its last warm-up round, but I couldn't make it since I was still getting over the typhoid I picked up in Tanzania. Y'know, as always, my life is so boring…)

Almost 50 years of Tanzanian history in one photo

Glimpsed on the street in Stone Town, Zanzibar, on one of my microfinance trips:

The green and yellow sign ("I love Zanzibar, vote yes for me, choose CCM, choose Dr. Shein") is a campaign ad from Tanzania's ruling CCM party (from the Swahili abbreviation for "Revolutionary Party").

Giant signs like these are everywhere. On major roads, you might easily see five or six at once.

Since the dawn of Tanzanian independence, the CCM and its predecessor have run things from day one, even when that necessitated rigged votes and occasional electoral massacres (including one here on Zanzibar as recently as 2001). But that doesn't mean an election isn't a chance to spend some public money to tell the public whose money you're spending about how wise you are with the public's money.

And while there's a major opposition party gradually gaining support among the business class in Arusha and Mwanza, everybody already knew who was gonna win this one, just like always.

Sure enough, President Kikwete of the CCM was re-elected by a 35-point margin.

And so the people below the powerful smiling heads continue their long slow heavy slog uphill.