Sam McManis

Discoveries: The game is afoot

No pressure. Yeah, none at all. I figured, if uber-intelligent champion Ken Jennings couldn’t beat the super-computer Watson at “Jeopardy!” no one would expect me to come close. Squaring off against this silicon circuit board is like facing Rafael Nadal across the net; you can only hope to get your racquet on that rocket serve, not actually return a winner.

Yet, as I girded myself for a simulated round of the popular game show against a version of Watson, which will conclude a yearlong Computer History Museum residence at the end of May, why were my knees knocking, my pulse racing? And why was I waiting to start the match until other museumgoers had wandered off to other techie exhibits?

Public humiliation, after all, is nothing new for me, as this weekly column attests. Plus, I told myself, this whole “Jeopardy!” display – complete with podiums, buzzers and that blue screen where you can print your name – really amounted to little more than an elaborate advertisement for IBM, which is touting Watson’s utility for a world beyond Alex Trebek’s domain. It’s just one of many computer exhibits at the museum with which you can interact. Pong, that less-neurological-taxing game, awaited, as did the original Pac-Man.

The entire museum, revamped and reopened in 2011, is a trip down memory lane for those whose formative years coincided with the dawn of the computer age, those who get all warm-and-fuzzy nostalgic at the sight of the original Apple II desktop or have nasty flashbacks to using the Radio Shack TRS-80 Model 100 on deadline. The 25,000-square-foot space features more than 1,000 computer artifacts, taking visitors from the abacus epoch through the punch-card mainframe days to the desktop, laptop and hand-held era.

A guy can feel intellectually daunted amid all this high technology, so why would I choose to further humiliate myself with tangible proof of my inadequacies by getting my head handed to me by Watson?

Because part of me looked at that damned circuit board and scoffed, You ain’t so tough, you big disk. You can’t bully me. Bring it on, Watson.

I sidled over to the voice-recognition display terminal where the matches take place and touched the screen with false bravado. With a flourish of the theme song, that familiar “Jeopardy!” board popped up. Visitors only get to play one round against Watson, double jeopardy, with no daily double. It’s pure Q-and-A – or, in “Jeopardy!” parlance, A-and-Q. The categories that popped up:

I felt slightly better now about my chances, since I spent too much time in front of the TV in my adolescence, have been known to throw around polysyllabic words to impress women, and read The New York Times religiously.

Just then, I was taken up short when the monitor spoke to me. “You’re up. Choose a clue from the board.”

My selection: “TV Casts” for $400. The unctuous game-show voice (sadly, not Alex’s) read the clue: “Gavin MacLeod, Bernie Kopell and Ted Lange as your barten--”

I knew this. I punched the buzzer on the screen before the last syllable of “bartender.” But I apparently jumped the gun, and the monitor said, “Watson.”

A robotic voice, enunciating slowly, responded, “What is ‘The Love Boat?’”

“That is correct,” the monitor said, followed by applause from the ersatz crowd.

Watson was threatening to make a run of the category, correctly answering “The Six Million Dollar Man,” “Police Woman” and “Vega$” in quick succession. I however, wanted Watson disqualified, since he didn’t answer “Vegas” but instead spelled out the word and said “dollar sign.” In any event, I was on my way to getting skunked – I had buzzer-timing trouble; yeah, that’s the problem – but when the $2,000 clue came up, “Buddy Ebsen, Lee Meriwether, Mark Sherra and a Quinn Martin Production,” Watson wasn’t so quick on the draw. His handlers may have been able to program a TV Guide’s worth of data into Watson’s circuit board, but he wouldn’t be able to recall in his mind’s eye those high cheekbones and gorgeous blue eyes of Meriwether, now would he?

I punched the screen: “BARNABY JONES,” I nearly shouted.

The buzzer sounded. D’oh, I forgot to phrase it in the form of a question, so neither of us got the answer.

Regrouping, I switched to the philosophy category (and Mom said a liberal arts degree wouldn’t be useful).

Answer: “Camus and de Beauvoir were big in this movement that said humans were fully responsible for making meaning of their own lives.”

I nearly broke a nail hitting the screen, fully expecting Watson to have beaten me to it. Instead, the voice intoned, “Your response.”

“What is uh, uh ...”

C’mon. Get it together. Think. “Existentialism?”

“That is correct!”

I’m on the board. Take that, Watson.

It didn’t take Watson long to reassert control. He nearly ran the board, getting the other philosophy clues correct and sweeping the New York Times and 11-letter word categories. By that time, I was racking my brain thinking of an unsavory 11-letter word to yell at Watson. The rest of the game, I beat Watson only on one other clue in the movie category – “Boxer Hillary Swank has some tough decisions for Diane Keaton in this film: Life or death, career or family,” my response being “What is ‘Million Dollar Baby Boom?’”

When the carnage was complete, the screen read: “Watson $30,800. You: $2,000.”

Afterward, I watched a video extolling Watson’s magnificence, how he “has to access terabytes and terabytes of data to answer a question” and can “process 500 gigabytes a second.” I slunk off in shame toward the Pong display, where I won two out of three games, thus salving my wounds. Wonder how many, if any, terabytes were programmed into Pong?

But my “Jeopardy!” defeat haunted me throughout the rest of the museum tour, as I plunged into existential despair at seeing how obsolete humans soon will be in the face of technology, as I looked at how once-state-of-the-art products (remember Palm Pilots?) quickly become mere outdated hunks of plastic and metal.

Someday, I know, Watson will meet his match. Someday, he will go down to ignominious (how’s that for an 11-letter word?) defeat to some snazzier contraption that can process vast zettabytes of data. Then he, too, will know what it’s like to be cognitive delayed.