Thursday, April 1, 2010

Apple #448: Jeopardy

To all you faithful Daily Apple readers, I'm sorry I missed my usual Sunday night post.  I went out of town over the weekend and unexpectedly had to stay an extra day.

Worry not.  Here's a fresh entry.

A jaguar wearing jodhpurs in the jungle may attack the jugular, and then you'd really be in jeopardy.

  • You probably already know what "jeopardy" means, but to be thorough, here is the official definition:  danger of loss, harm, or failure.  So you're basically teetering on the edge of death.  Or failure, either one.
  • The word comes from a French phrase used in chess:  ieu parti. Those of you who read the initial entry on the letter J won't be that surprised to see an "i" there where in English, it's a "j."
  • The phrase means the game is evenly divided.  That doesn't sound much like our meaning of the word "jeopardy," but wait, there's more.
  • Specifically, it means you've just made some kind of risky or dangerous move and now you must wait for your opponent to move.  Depending on what happens next, you could win or lose the game.  A tame way of putting it is to say that your chances of winning or losing are evenly divided.  A more dramatic expression is to say that your fate hangs in the balance.

This is more like how we usually think of "jeopardy," rather than in terms of a situation in chess.  This movie, by the way, is titled Jeopardy. In it, Barbara Stanwyck's husband gets his leg trapped under some logs so she goes to find help but unfortunately gets kidnapped.  Can she free herself in time to save her husband?
(Image from IMP Awards)

  • You can't talk about the word "jeopardy" without discussing the uber-popular game show, Jeopardy!
  • As of August 2009, the game show averages 9 million viewers each day.
  • Alex Trebek has won five Daytime Emmys in his role as host.  Has has hosted the show since 1984.
  • You've probably heard of Ken Jennings, who won the highest number of consecutive games -- 74 in all.  He took home over $2.5 million.
  • But someone else won more money than he did: Brad Rutter from Lancaster, PA.  Combining his winnings from his original appearance in 2002, plus what he won in two tournaments, he took home over $3.25 million.

All those screens hold so many questions. Or should I say answers.
(Photo from

  • The "Clue Crew" are three people who travel around the country and the world to find new places that hold new questions for the show.
  • But the majority of the behind-the-scenes work is done by a group of people at home.  Six researchers and ten writers put together the categories and create the questions.  I find it pretty impressive that only sixteen people come up with that much information on a regular basis and in what seems to be a fairly short amount of time.
  • If you think that's impressive, consider what the contestants do each and every show.  To put that in perspective, let's talk about supercomputers for a moment.  Trust me, it's relevant.
  • You may remember that IBM built a computer, Deep Blue, which was programmed to play chess.  It did so well enough that in 1997 it beat the chess world champion, Garry Kasparov.  Kasparov protested the match and later played a different version of the program, and that game finished in a draw.  Too late, though, most people remember that the computer bested the best human at chess. 
  • Now IBM has taken on a new challenge.  Chess, they said, is old hat.  They are now aiming to write a program, called Watson, that can beat humans at the game show, Jeopardy!
  • (I'm going to state the obvious and point out that IBM is moving from a chess game to another game which is named after a move in chess.  Conscious choice on someone's part, or sheer coincidence?  Here's some more synchronicity for you: You can answer Jeopardy! questions about chess here.)
  • IBM's Watson will have to understand English, plus lots of complexities such as puns, analogies, alliterations, double entendres, irony, riddles, and other complex relationships among concepts.  It will have to search among the information it has stored to arrive at an answer, an answer in which the computer has "confidence" or thinks is right, and take a chance on buzzing in.  It must do all of this at lightning speed -- or at least more quickly than humans can ring in on their buzzers.
  • To accomplish all this, it's going to run on hardware similar to IBM's BlueGene system which reaches speeds in terms of teraflops and petaflops.  In 2007, BlueGene could run 445 million million, which is 45 followed by 12 zeros, calculations per second.  That's uber-fast because it's uber-big.  IBM estimates that this project alone will cost somewhere between $900 million to $1.8 billion in R&D funds. 

IBM's BlueGene at Lawrence Livermore Laboratory in 2007.
(Photo by Lawrence Livermore, sourced from IBM)

  • IBM is hoping to conduct the formal challenge by the end of 2010, or maybe early 2011.  So far, Watson has succeeded in answering factual questions such as, "Bordered by Syria and Israel, this small country is only 135 miles long and 35 miles wide," and answering, "What is Lebanon?"  It does not do so well with questions that require subtleties of identification, such as "This Ziegfield star was portrayed in the film Funny Girl."  Watson answered "Who is Barbra Streisand?" but the correct response should have been, "Who is Fanny Brice?"
  • Put in this perspective, it's pretty remarkable that human contestants on the show do this level of processing well enough and fast enough that they get the answers to the questions correct about 85% of the time.
  • I'm trying to put the various parts of this entry together.  Is the moral of this story that in order to keep yourself from jeopardy, you have to be really smart?  Or does being really smart put you in jeopardy? 
  • Or maybe the only conclusion to draw is this one:  This pop hit reached number 2 on the charts in 1983 and was later spoofed by Weird Al Yankovic.  Baby.  Ooh, ooh ooh ooh.

On that note, I am going to conclude my series on words that start with the letter J.  Hope you enjoyed it.

Compact Oxford Dictionary, jeopardy
My trusty micrographically reproduced two-volume set of the Oxford English Dictionary, Show Guide, About the Show
John Markoff, "Computer Program to take On 'Jeopardy!'" The New York Times, April 26, 2009
IBM, Watson Takes on Jeopardy!
JR Raphael, Meet Watson, IBM Supercomputer and Future 'Jeopardy!' Champ, PC World, date unknown
David Goldman, Facing off against IBM's 'Jeopardy! computer, CNNMoney, June 26, 2009
Argonne's green BlueGene/P gets more muscle to address most challenging scientific problems, Argonne National Laboratory, November 2007

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