Did Watson enjoy a head start on Jeopardy?

February 22nd, 2011

IBM's Watson on Jeopardy!

IBM’s Watson’s performance in last week’s Jeopardy Challenge was an amazing accomplishment and a demonstration of how our computer systems are becoming more intelligent and capable of solving difficult tasks.

But I wonder if the way that questions were given to the human players and Watson doesn’t give Watson a short, but significant head start. According to the New York Times

“During the sparring matches, Watson received the questions as electronic texts at the same moment they were made visible to the human players;”

Once Watson received a query, it could process it immediately. While the human contestants got to see the query as written text at the same time, Alex Trebek also starts reading the question aloud. When I was watching Jeopardy, I found it almost impossible to read and understand the question more quickly than it was being spoken and suspect that Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter might also. It’s often observed that people find it very difficult to simultaneously process two language streams. While it took Trebek only a second or two to read the short Jeopardy queries, that could have given Watson a significant head start, enabling it to determine that it had a good answer and press its buzzer before the competition.

If this is the case, I am not sure if it is an unfair advantage. People and computers each have native advantages and disadvantages. If Jennings and Rutter got the questions as text without them being simultaneous read aloud, Watson might still have had the advantage of a quicker start.