Watson supercomputer defeated in Jeopardy by lone physicist — long live humanity!

IBM’s Watson supercomputer might have crushed the puny likes of Jeopardy! champions Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter, but it was no match for former physicist and New Jersey congressman Rush Holt.

Surprisingly, the win had nothing to do with Holt’s physics background — just a little bit of scrappy play in categories where the human brain has a slight edge over a supercomputer. Holt, an assistant director of the plasma physics laboratory at Princeton University until he was elected in 1998, managed to outmaneuver Watson in some key categories that showcased the computer’s weaknesses. That included the likes of “presidential rhymes,” which required certain responses like “Hoover’s Maneuvers.”

Watson has shown just how far computing has come today after handily crushing the likes of Jennings and Rutter. But, at its core, it is still a computer that uses a series of complex search algorithms and some heavy-duty processing firepower to determine an answer that has the highest probability of being correct. That’s because using a series of algorithms to understand natural language — something that comes to humans with relative ease — can be incredibly difficult for computers.

Jennings said it was Watson’s “buzzer mojo” — how quickly the computer was able to hit the buzzer to indicate that it would answer the question — that led the computer to victory over he and Rutter. He made the comments on an ask-me-anything thread — which lets users ask the original poster questions through comments and get responses within the thread — on news-aggregation site Reddit. (The thread is also worth checking out because some of Jennings’ comments are pure gold.)

“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,” Jennings said. “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.”

Holt finished the first round of Jeopardy! last week with 8,600 points to Watson’s 6,200. It wasn’t the first time humanity handed Watson a loss — the computer only won 71 percent of its warm-up matches. But it was the first time since IBM’s highly-publicized campaign that featured the supercomputer’s nationally-televised appearance when it went toe-to-toe and soundly defeated Jeopardy! champions Jennings and Rutter. It was also only a single round — not a full Jeopardy! match.