It’s man against machine as Watson takes on Washington

WASHINGTON–Sure, Rep. Jim Himes is a Harvard graduate, a Rhodes scholar, and one-time investment banker who made millions at Goldman Sachs. But he’s no match for Watson, the IBM supercomputer who last week made news by winning Jeopardy! against the TV game show’s two most venerable contestants.

On Monday night, Himes, D-4th District, and four other members of Congress had their own trivia face-off with Watson. It was a dramatic man-versus-machine showdown at a Washington hotel, with malfunctions of both the human and computer variety.

“Our victims, excuse me, our contestants,” IBM’s Eric Brown, a top scientist who helped create Watson, said in introducing the brave lawmakers who took their places next to the supercomputer.

Himes confessed to being nervous beforehand, but said he was intent on enjoying the game “even if I’m humiliated.”

“If I win, I’m really smart,” he said. “If I lose, I’m really human.” (A win-win situation, right? Stay tuned on that question.)

The event wasn’t televised on the real “Jeopardy” show. It was targeted more to an elite political crowd than a national TV audience, part of a savvy PR blitz by IBM, which handed out fact sheets linking its new computer to President Barack Obama’s “win the future” agenda.

“Nurturing innovation is everyone’s business,” the IBM paper–headlined “Why Watson Matters for the Government”–declared. IBM officials said they planned to fan out on Capitol Hill Tuesday to press their case on patent reform, corporate trade issues, and other matters.

Monday night’s event was the warm-up, a chance to showcase Watson–and a few key lawmakers–at a wine-and-cheese reception, followed by the mock Jeopardy contest. Himes and the other politician-contenders were chosen because of the large number of IBM employees in their House districts. (Brown, the IBM scientist, said he, like many other company employees, lives in Connecticut’s 4th District and commutes to the company’s New York offices.)

Now to the game show. Round 1 went to humans–a Democrat from New Jersey to be more precise. Rep. Rush Holt is a five-time Jeopardy champion (six if you count Monday night) who cleaned the supercomputer’s clock on Monday, particularly in the category of “laundry detergent.” (A three-letter adjective for the Beatles? Holt: “What is Fab?”)

Still, Watson won the roaring applause with his answer to this question about tennis vocabulary:

“Ambrose Bierce described this as a temporary insanity, curable by marriage,” posed IBM’s Brown, who played moderator.

“What is love?,” answered Watson, without missing a beat.

Himes played in Rounds 2 and 3. He stumbled on the very first question–in the category of international sports trophies.

The clue: “Named for a French wine, a claret jug is the prize for this golf tournament.” Himes’ answer: “What is Wimbledon?” Ouch, that’s tennis, not golf. That put Himes $800 in the hole.

Unbowed, Himes made a comeback on the next question, answering correctly that China won its 17th Swaythling Cup in men’s team table tennis last year. $400 up.

Watson then had a meltdown, his answer screen frozen in sky-blue. “The humans will prevail,” someone from the audience shouted.

With a little computer wizardry from Brown, Watson was back in the game after a few minutes. And he won handily, flattening Himes and Polis in the movie and geography categories.

Still, Himes made a decent showing, particularly on food questions. In the category of “What are you … chicken?” Himes hit on a “daily double” question–a chance to double his money. He bet his entire pot–$3,200–to loud applause. The question was a cinch: “Alton Brown recommends Pinot Noir for the wine in the French name of this dish.”

Himes hit his buzzer. “What is Coq au Vin?”

Afterwards, Himes said he tried to go for categories that were a little more human–focusing on food rather than geography, for example–in the hopes of outwitting the machine. To no avail. He finished with $7,600, compared to Watson’s $22,500. The other contender in that round, Rep. Jared Polis, D-Co., came in third, with $6,800.

On the more serious question of the supercomputer’s societal value, IBM officials said it was nothing less than a breakthrough. And one that would help bolster the company’s case in Washington for a business-friendly agenda.

Chris Padilla, the company’s vice president for governmental programs, said he and others were pushing lawmakers this week to enact more generous research and development tax credits, more favorable corporate tax treatment, and aggressive patent protection measures.

Himes said he was eager to look for ways to help IBM and other companies stay on the cutting edge of technology.

“The future of this country depends on innovation in this field and others,” he said. “Much more serious than the question of what is this computer going to do, is how can we have more engineers of the type that built it?”

Still, he said, even in victory, Watson has its limitations. “It malfunctioned more than the Democrats or the Republicans,” he quipped.