Opinion

It's Elementary, Dear Watson: Computers Win, Jeopardy! Viewers Lose

As the IBM computer Watson competes against “Jeopardy!” champions Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter, one thing is clear: The viewers will lose.

Aside from the curiosity of learning whether man can beat machine, where is the fun factor? With this type of super-brain billing, the onlookers will no longer be permitted to participate in the action. All that’s left for them is to watch their heroes, Ken and Brad, get slaughtered in an unfair fight for supremacy. Sure as shootin’, this has to be the outcome, unless fate steps in. Most people I know, including myself, have attempted the seemingly impossible -- beating the computer.

I accomplished this feat, a few times, in a game of Cribbage. To this day, I still brag about beating out the usually unbeatable foe. Big deal.

As thrilling as it was for me, no one was interested enough to watch me try it again.They probably wanted their own chance to play.

Years ago, all types of game shows fell under the classification “Audience Participation Shows.” The most successful lived up to their promise. These television contests always offered the opportunity for people to experience the thrill of competing in a game that tests their acumen and challenges their mind. The ideal game show was designed to include the people at home and make them look forward to their everyday challenge.

The one thing that could not be duplicated for the home viewer was the nervousness and tension endured by the on-air players. From the calm of their home, the home viewer gained satisfaction by beating the on-camera contestants to the right answer. They often did just that, and generally came back for more. The vicarious thrill of winning out, making the best deal or buying a vowel at just the right time keeps everyone excited and interested. It’s also only natural to play favorites. Most of us root for competitors who exhibit the most appealing personality, or are the nicest looking, while pulling for the underdog. How can you do this with a computer?

Computers are not smart enough to assume their own personality or make their own choices regarding the limitations of their users. All they can do is provide the answer to every question that might ever be asked. Even though they can tell us the name of every bowler that ever scored a 300 game, they themselves can’t make a 7-10 split.

Watson couldn’t care less. Same with us. There is no emotional component in watching a computer beat humans at their own game. Even chess or checkers played via computer robs the player of the experience of interacting with their opponent. Same thing with video poker. Where's the thrill in looking into a soulless screen? And what about bragging rights? There’s just no fun in playing with a machine that can only react the way it’s been programmed to.

As in real life, we must also play by the rules. Before we attempted to take our first step, we were all fitted out with the same apparatus. How we developed them depended upon what interested us the most. We could excel at any of them, be it cooking, travel, sports, music, the Bible, or any of the myriad categories that are featured on a quiz show. Art? If we can learn to write our name, we can learn to draw a picture, but do we want to? The computer doesn’t get that choice.

The only entertainment the onlookers will receive from Watson’s one-sided Jeopardy! contest is curiosity. We already are nearly 100 percent sure of the winner. The odds of either of the champions of our brain trust winning are extremely slim. They might just as well be playing solitaire to a disinterested passerby. Watson will be quicker on the buzzer, perfectly correct in his responses and with nerves of steel, it will remain as calm as a computer can. That’s what he’s been programmed to do.

The true spirit of the game show lies in its humanity. Without it, there will be no audience participation. I wonder how high the ratings will climb if stations ever schedule a show like, “The Multimillion-Dollar Battle of the Talking Encyclopedias.”

Norm Blumenthal, producer of the legendary game show “Concentration” that aired from the late 1950s to the early 1970s, is the author of the new book, “When Game Shows Ruled Daytime TV.”

TRENDING IN OPINION