Image Credit: Ben Hider/Getty ImagesIt was a sad day for humans everywhere when supercomputer Watson beat out superwinners (except in this case) Brad Rutter and Ken Jennings in Jeopardy‘s epic three-day Man vs. Machine battle. So EW hopped on the phone with Rutter to talk about this tragic loss for the human race, his strategy going into the battle, and buzz in his answer for one major burning question: Will there be a rematch?
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Tell me, Brad, how are you coping with this devastating loss?
BRAD RUTTER: Oh, it hasn’t had time to sink in yet, really. Well, actually, it has. We taped it. But I’ve been so busy I haven’t had much time to think about it. [Laughs] But yeah, hey, they had to build a $10 million supercomputer to beat me. So that’s not all bad.
So take me back to the beginning of this competition. When you were going into it, were you confident you could pull out a win here for mankind?
I’m always really confident when I play Jeopardy. I’ve done pretty well so far. And also, I think being confident is why I’ve done so well. I remember watching Ken on his run and by the time people would show up to play him and knew who he was, at least one contestant would always have that glazed, deer in the headlights look in their eyes, like ‘I have no way I can win this.’ And they’re just taken themselves out of it right there. I always think someone’s got to win this; why not me?
That’s a good, stoic attitude to have against a machine. Very fitting.
Sure. It’s like, hey, the computer’s not going to get discouraged. So it would pay for me not to also.
When you were going into it, who did you think was going to be the harder competition? Ken or Watson?
Well, you know, Ken’s always tough, but I’ve played him before. You know, it’s sort of the devil you know versus the devil you don’t. So, um, we’d seen some sparring matches on a DVD they sent us just to see how he was doing. And he was pretty consistently beating really good Jeopardy players that I recognized. So I knew it would be tough. But I didn’t quite know what Watson had in store, so I was a little more concerned about that.
They sent you a DVD?
Yeah. A Blu-Ray, actually.
That sounds like a psyche-out to me!
[Laughs] Well, the rationale was that the IBM guys had pretty much pored over and analyzed all of Ken’s and my games, so it was only fair for us to get a glimpse of Watson before we went to play him.
That’s true. But you can’t put mind games past them…
[Laughs] No. Actually, during the practice rounds, they did kinda do a few things differently, so we got the impression they were sandbagging us before the real competition started.
I see. So do you think it was a fair fight?
Yeah. I do. Human players have their strengths and weaknesses and Watson is the same way. He just has different strengths and weaknesses than most people.
And what are those?
Um, well, the buzzer timing was an advantage [to Watson] because while it was possible to get in front of it when it wanted to get in — I managed to do it a couple of times — it’s basically just electronic circuits playing off when the [buzzer] system opens up. It’s never going to lock itself out like you can when you ring in early. So you have to hit that 10 millisecond window between when the system opens up and when Watson wants to buzz in if you want to beat it in on something it knows. That’s tough to do. But over the course of three days, I probably did it three or four times maybe. So it was basically left for me and Ken to split on whatever Watson wasn’t going to ring in on.
Anything you’d do differently?
I might start hunting for the daily doubles earlier, but since Watson started that right off the bat. Once someone starts doing that, you sort of have to follow suit or you’d be at a big disadvantage. So I can’t think of much I’d do differently. Maybe a couple of category selections here and there, but overall I think I played with as good of a strategy as I could.
The show had its biggest ratings in something like six years during this battle. Why were people so fascinated?
Clearly people wanted to see me. [Laughs] I think it’s just because of the whole Man vs. Machine aspect of it. Jeopardy is an institution, and people know what to expect from it and what the game’s about. I think they were interested to see that IBM has built a computer that can beat two of the best players in Jeopardy history, and they’re going to do it on national TV with a lot on the line. Who wouldn’t want to watch that, right?
Now tell me about rematch possibilities. Would you go up against Watson again?
Yeah, I would. You know, another thing people don’t realize is that there’s a ton of luck in Jeopardy. I’ve been ridiculously lucky a few times over the years to get where I got, and the way these matches played out is, basically, on the Tuesday show, the Double Jeopardy round, it ended up being a great round for Watson. There were categories that he could handle really well, and when that happens, you have to beat him on the buzzer, which like I said is really tough. But if there had been a couple of different boards with categories that Watson couldn’t handle as well, I could have easily seen Ken or me wining one of those. Maybe they weren’t using Watson to his full capabilities in the practice rounds because Ken and I both won one of those. You didn’t see that on TV, but we definitely felt like we could win.
So you went in there knowing it was possible at least.
Right. And especially for me, because I’d won the practice match the morning of the shoot. So I was feeling great going into it.
And what’s next for you?
I’m going to keep acting out here in Los Angeles, and performing with my improv group and, you know, host some cable-, History Channel-, Discovery Channel-type show concepts in the works that I’m pitching around. Hopefully you’ll see me on TV hosting a show rather than playing on Jeopardy.
Cool. Well, hopefully you don’t run into Watson on the streets of L.A. I think he has two targets on his back now.
[Laughs] Yeah, actually, I think he has more to fear from the humans than we do from the computers at this point.