Finally out of Watson material!

25 Feb

I imagine public interest in the idea of IBM software winning a quiz show is starting to wane–and remember, I taped these shows a month in advance, so I’m thirty days ahead of the attention-waning curve. Here, while anybody might still care, are six Watson stories I never told.

1. IBM research labs have no dressing rooms for some reason! As a result, Brad Rutter and I took over two HR conference rooms to change clothes, get made up, etc. I’ve already emailed the HR department a little chart showing which parts of their desks I sat on naked. Sorry guys! Hope the basket of muffins made up for it. Also, the whole place was designed by superstar midcentury architect Eero Saarinen…but it’s got like two men’s rooms in it. What, in Finland nobody needs to pee? Because Brad and I were supposed to be strictly sequestered from the Watson team, keeping IBMers out of “our” men’s room became a full-time job for the contestant coordinators. One guy who got yelled for trying to use his own restroom turned out to be senior vice president John E. Kelly III. “I don’t think anyone’s said no to him in years!” said one white-faced IBM employee.

2. Watson is mostly written in Java. After one of the practice games wound up, I sat down in the auditorium behind Watson’s operators, hoping to sneak a peek at what they were up to. The first thing I saw was a whomping Java error trace someone was trying to debug. As a Java programmer for many years, this was both exciting and horrifying: my own tools had turned on me! Luckily, like any good craftsman, I choose not to blame my Yogi Berra.

3. Garry Kasparov didn’t make the cut. In the first game, Watson nailed a clue about Garry Kasparov’s defeat at the “hands” of Deep Blue, eliciting a burst of applause from the deeply-in-the-tank studio audience. Unfortunately, home viewers never got to see this IBM bloodlust in action. The Kasparov clue, like maybe half a dozen others over the course of the taping, had to be tossed out for technical reasons. The Jeopardy! crew’s 26 years of experience doing their show means they normally run a pretty tight ship, but the added complications of (a) doing the show on the road, and (b) connecting to a computer opponent for the first time meant endless glitches. I think Brad and I both wonder if I we could have eased into a better buzzer rhythm if we hadn’t had to stop tape every category or two.

4. Jerome Vered was pissed. I wrote in Slate that I was the first human made obsolete by Watson, but that’s not strictly true. Jerome Vered has that honor. You may recall that the last time Brad and I played Jeopardy! was the finals of the Ultimate Tournament of Champions, in which the third man was L.A. gadabout and quiz show veteran Jerome Vered. One of the Jeopardy! contestant coordinators said that, just hours after the lineup for the Watson match was announced, she got an email from Jerome: “So you replaced me with a computer?!?” For some reason I like to imagine him saying this with gloomy equanimity, like Eeyore.

5. Alex Trebek was pissed. Between the practice rounds and the televised game, Watson switched up its strategy dramatically–most notably, it started hunting for Daily Doubles instead of marching down the categories in order. The reason was simple: Watson comes with a practice mode and a game mode, and it wasn’t playing in game mode yet. I don’t think Brad or I felt like this was unfair–after all, we could have concealed strategy from Watson in the practice rounds as well–but some of the Jeopardy! powers-that-be felt the change-up was a bit of a hustle, since presumably one of the reasons for the practice rounds was to let us see Watson’s gameplay in action. “Alex is pissed,” Stephen Baker told me the weekend after the taping, right after he got off the phone with a still-hot-under-the-collar Trebek.

6. Alex Trebek was messing with my head! Jeopardy! “Clue Crew” stalwart Jimmy McGuire stood in for Alex as host of the practice rounds, so that audiences seeing clips wouldn’t assume they were watching the actual match. Alex, though, was so interested in watching Watson in action that he drifted into the crowd in his shirtsleeves and watched the practice rounds from the front row. This was oddly disconcerting! “Alex, I can’t play with you watching!” I shouted to him. “You’re in the wrong spot.” It was, I thought, exactly like trying to pee at a urinal with someone watching you. Or with a Jeopardy! contestant coordinator kicking you out of the men’s room, I suppose.

(Watson likeness by Matt “Matsby” Page.)