IBM’s Watson Narrowly Defeats HBS Jeopardy! Team in Harrowing Battle of Man vs. Machine

Watson Competition 10.31.11
IBM Watson Jeopardy Competition

On the afternoon of Halloween, three talented HBS students competed against IBM’s Watson supercomputer in the great American game of Jeopardy! cartier santos 100 replica.  The competition conjured the collegiate spirit of a homecoming football game.  Students and faculty, some dressed in the colors of their home team, packed into Burden Auditorium to watch the school’s most formidable athletes take on rivals, both carbon- and silicon-based, in a contest of intellectual sportsmanship.

Watson had already created a buzz on campus as the protagonist of a TOM case, entitled “Building Watson: It’s not so elementary my dear!” which was discussed earlier in the day.  Prof. Willy Shih, an IBM alum, authored the story of Watson’s creation and evolution as a culminating study of the innovation process.  Pre-game remarks by Prof. Shih, in addition to IBM’s Dr. David Ferrucci, focused on why the firm chose to build its multi-year supercomputer project around the goal of beating top-scoring humans at the Jeopardy! quiz show.  Dr. Ferrucci explained that Jeopardy! presents “a compelling and notable way to drive and measure the technology of automatic question answering…because [the game] has a broad and open domain, uses complex language, requires high precision and confidence, and moves at a high speed.”

HBS Students: Jonas Akins, Jayanth Iyengar, Genevieve Sheehan

While most RC’s would agree with Prof. Shih’s assertion that the game presents an effective platform for innovation, its entertainment and publicity value was not lost on the spectators last Monday afternoon.  The audience was in high spirits as the snappily-dressed Alex cartier roadster replica Trebek impersonator introduced the HBS team lineup.  EC’s Genevieve Sheehan (a former Jeopardy! contestant), Jayanth Iyengar (a former College Jeopardy! finalist), and Jonas Akins (all-around smarty-pants) took the stage to spar against Watson and three MIT Sloan students.

Watson took an early lead with wins in the “Countries Ending in E” and “Who’s Your Daddy’s Company” categories, but Harvard held its own by acing all of the questions it won off the buzzer.  With MIT in the red for most of the first round, it quickly turned into a two-player game.  The crowd went wild when Harvard squeaked out a lead after successfully wagering the whole of its earnings on the second Daily Double.  Watson managed to erase the Harvard gain with a run on the “Scrambled State Capital” category and won after a Final Jeopardy! question that both it and Harvard answered correctly.

IBM representatives remarked that HBS was the closest a human team had ever come to beating Watson; even champion Ken Jennings lost to Watson by a landslide – $77,147 to $24,000 in a February 2011 contest.

Harvard professors, spectators, and contestants were happy with the outcome.  The time Genevieve, Jayanth, and Jonas had spent reviewing buzzing techniques and watching old episodes had paid off.  Jonas noted that “Teamwork definitely played to our advantage,” in confirming accurate answers  The three quickly identified the buzzer timing as the major obstacle to beating Watson, since the computer would never “lock out” for buzzing in too early.  “The human error related to the buzzer timing was frustrating.  We knew the answers to most of the questions but Watson beat us to it,” Genevieve told the Harbus.

Aside from the tactical points, the players and professors started to identify Watson’s strengths and weaknesses with regards to question content.  Jayanth noticed that Watson was slower to respond to the “Having a Ball” category, which Harvard swept: “We could see that Watson was having trouble with the colloquial nature and the pun-filled structure of the questions.” Conversely, Watson proved to be especially quick at trivia questions that relied less on inferred language and did not require it to synthesize information from different areas.  TOM Rookie of the Year Professor David Drake observed that “Watson seemed particularly strong at categories that required a narrower set of information, perhaps allowing it to concentrate its search over one or two data sources.”

Despite the ultimate outcome, the close score and the nail-biting Daily Double were counted as wins for the Harvard team.  While no one expected HBS to beat the IBM supercomputer, the game evolved into a surprisingly enthusiastic celebration of human intellect.  In fact, the Trebek stand-in repeatedly scolded the crowd for booing Watson.  But perhaps this breach of sportsmanship is allowed when it is in favor of humanity at large.



Kate Lewis is an RC who has a healthy fear of supercomputers.  She competed as a mathlete in high school.


  1. So a “safe” bet lost them the game. How HBS is that! I’ll bet right now that the MIT losers will wipe them off the floor when they get into the real world.

  2. Neither Belize nor Suriname are Central American Countries – they are Caribbean Countries. The Central American Countries are, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Nicaragua, El Salvador and Honduras. None end with an “e”!

    1. @Humayun: You’re certainly right about Suriname not being in Central America — I read the question as being “…in Latin America.”

      I believe that Belize unequivocally qualifies as Central America, however… //

  3. Of course it is Belize. This country was formerly known as British Honduras and is right next door to Honduras, which Humayun accepts is part of Central America.

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