Ken Jennings: Watson, Jeopardy and me, the obsolete know-it-all


Ken Jennings is a game show star who holds the record for the longest winning streak on the U.S. game show Jeopardy! and as being the second highest-earning contestant in American game show history.


Ken Jennings loved game shows from a young age, and felt extreme satisfaction when he beat his parents at Trivial Pursuit “Knowledge is Power”. In 2004 he appeared on Jeopardy for the first time, but in 2009 he got a call from the producers asking him to play against IBM’s Jeopardy machine: Watson. Because of his love of the game he agreed, but also because he knew about AI at the time and thought he could win. It is extremely difficult for computers to understand language and the nuance of natural communication, so Ken was confident. As the time came closer, he saw graphs of Watson’s performance against other Jeopardy players’ skill level, slowly creeping towards his own. He knew the AI was coming for him – not in the gunsights of Terminator, but in a line of data slowly creeping upwards.

On the day IBM programmers came out to support Watson, and Watson won handily. He remembers feeling the same way a Detroit factory worker did – realising his job had been made obsolete by a robot. He was one of the first, but not only knowledge worker to have this feeling: pharmacists, paralegals, sports journalists are also slowly being overtaken by thinking machines. In a lot of cases, the machines don’t show the same creativity, but they do the job much more cheaply and quickly than a human.

As computers take over thinking jobs, do humans still need to learn anything, or know anything? Will our brains shrink as more tasks get outsourced, and computers remember more facts?

Ken believes having this knowledge in your head is still important because of volume and time.

  • Volume because the amount of information is doubling every 18 months, and we need to make good judgements on these facts. We need the facts in our head to assemble a decision, it is harder to judge these facts while looking them up.
  • Time because sometimes you need a quick decision, or need to know what to do. Ken talks about a child remembering a fact from Geography at the beach: the tide rushing out is a precursor to a Tsunami. Her knowledge and quick response on the day of the 2004 boxing day tsunami saved the people on that beach, which couldn’t be done unless she knew it.

Shared knowledge is also an important social glue: people can bond over a shared experience or knowing something in a way that can’t be simulated by looking things up together.

Ken doesn’t want to live in a world where knowledge is obsolete, or where humanity has no shared cultural knowledge. Right now, we need to make the decision of what our future will be like: will we go to an information golden age where we use our extra access to knowledge, or will we not bother to learn anymore? Ken wants us to keep being curious, inquisitive people – to have an unquenchable curiosity.

My Thoughts

I’m unclear if Ken is talking out against AIs in general, or just about how we manage a transition to increasingly prevalent AIs. I agree with him that people must continue to learn and do things, however I also feel like there is no reason to force us to do jobs once a computer can do it. Instead people should be free to explore, learn, find new hobbies for themselves.

This talk is interesting, especially if you are a fan of Jeopardy or Ken. His experience is one that I’m sure a lot of people will have over the coming years. However, it is mostly of the anecdotal variety: I don’t think it adds much insight to the topic of AI. Regardless, it isn’t supposed to: know that going in and it should be great.

I for one welcome our new robot overlords