WASHINGTON – Turns out it really does take a rocket scientist to beat Watson, the “Jeopardy”-winning computer.
U.S. Rep. Rush Holt of New Jersey – a five-time champion during the trivia show’s original run 35 years ago – topped the IBM computer Monday night in a “Jeopardy”-style match of congressmen vs. machine held at a Washington hotel.
Though Holt isn’t the first human to beat Watson, the victory adds to the 62-year-old Democrat’s already-impressive resume: a former State Department arms control expert and ex-leader of the federal Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory.
“I wonder if Watson wasn’t having a low-voltage night, because I certainly didn’t expect to score higher than the computer,” he told The Associated Press in an interview Tuesday.
He built a lead in categories including “Presidential Rhyme Time,” in which the correct response to “Herbert’s military strategy” was “Hoover’s maneuvers.” The congressman also correctly identified hippophobia as the fear of horses.
Watson beat him to the buzzer with “love” when prompted on what Ambrose Bierce described as “a temporary insanity curable by marriage.”
Holt played the first round along with Rep. Bill Cassidy, a Louisiana Republican. At the end of the round, Holt had earned $8,600 to Watson’s $6,200.
But the computer ultimately triumphed in later rounds against the other representatives: Nan Hayworth, R-N.Y., Jim Himes, D-Conn., and Jared Polis, D-Colo. Watson amassed a combined $40,300 to the humans’ $30,000.
Watson, designed specifically to excel at the type of answers-and-questions format used on “Jeopardy,” took 25 IBM scientists four years to create.
Humans have beat Watson before, including sparring matches with various players held in the fall to prepare for a televised match with top human “Jeopardy” champs Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter; and during rehearsals, when Jennings won at least once.
Holt received a round of applause Tuesday at a hearing of the House Natural Resources Committee for besting the computer. He thanked the crowd and gave a shout-out to “neuron-based thinking, instead of semi-conductor thinking.”
Holt said it was fun to beat the heralded computer. But he also said it’s important that Americans realize how crucial math and science education is to the nation’s future.
“I jumped at the chance to do this, not only because it would be fun, but as a way to highlight our national need to invest in research and science education,” he told the AP. “It’s something I’ve been talking about for decades.”
The match shows “that so many people are interested not so much in Watson but what the possibilities here are,” said IBM spokeswoman Lia P. Davis.
“That said, Watson still won the match,” she said. “So I think we can all be proud of that. It demonstrates that humans are very smart and computers are very smart.”
Holt has a doctorate in physics from New York University and was elected to Congress in 1998.
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