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Harvard, MIT Sloan, and IBM Watson spar in Jeopardy!

The MIT Sloan School of Management team, from left to right: R.J. Andrews, MBA '13; Gautham Iyer, MBA '12; and Ari Oxman, MBA '13.The MIT Sloan School of Management team, from left to right: R.J. Andrews, MBA '13; Gautham Iyer, MBA '12; and Ari Oxman, MBA '13.

The answer was so easy that a crowd of students in Harvard Business School’s Burden Auditorium erupted in cheers; a few were out of their seats.

“In the movie Cast Away, Wilson is a nonspeaking one of these,” said fill-in Jeopardy! host Todd Alan Crain.

This was the Daily Double question the Harvard team couldn’t miss at the mock game show match last fall that pitted MIT Sloan School of Management students against both Harvard Business School students and Watson, IBM’s artificial intelligence supercomputer. The show was part of a day’s worth of events concerning the employment and economic implications of continuous advances in computing.

Watson, under development since 2006 by a team of more than 20, is best known for its defeat last year of Jeopardy! champions Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter.

The question, by the way, was “What is a volleyball?” and the Harvard team nailed it, driving its score to $22,400 and pulling ahead of the supercomputer.

The MIT Sloan team lagged behind, and Watson would eventually overtake Harvard for the win. Final scores for the match were $53,601 for Watson, $42,399 for Harvard, and $100 for MIT.

“We happen to be really bad at sports,” said R.J. Andrews, MBA ’13, one of the three MIT Sloan students selected to compete against Harvard and Watson. “And there were at least two sports categories.”

A big early loss for the MIT Sloan team was a Daily Double, in which the team incorrectly guessed Dennis Rodman as the winner of the first NBA Sportsmanship Award. (The correct answer was Joe Dumars.)

The team did grab a hometown sports question, associating Manny Ramirez with the 2004 World Series-winning Boston Red Sox. And they took the last question of Double Jeopardy! by asking “What are Obama’s Llamas?” for the clue “Barack’s ambient pack animals.”

But the MIT Sloan team dropped Final Jeopardy! while the Harvard team answered correctly without wagering enough to beat Watson, which also answered correctly. The clue, in “Americana,” was: “Finding the spot for this memorial caused its creator to say, ‘America will march along that skyline.’” The correct response was: “What is Mount Rushmore?” The MIT team guessed that it was a Wright Brothers memorial.

The loss was tough, but understandable. Though MIT missed a few key answers, the team suffered mostly from the race to hit their buzzer. Andrews and company did not have as many opportunities to score as Watson and Harvard did.

“It depends on the buzzer,” Gautham Iyer, MBA ’12, said before the competition. “It totally depends on that buzzer.”

The Jeopardy! match was the capstone to the Race Against the Machine Symposium, held the same day at the MIT Media Lab.

The symposium featured a keynote talk from IBM Fellow David Ferrucci, Watson’s principal investigator. Panel discussions considered where technology will go in the coming decades and how it will affect employment.

The symposium and Jeopardy! match were both companion pieces to mark the release of Race Against the Machine: How the Digital Revolution is Accelerating Innovation, Driving Productivity, and Irreversibly Transforming Employment and the Economy, a new book by MIT Sloan’s Erik Brynjolfsson, the Schussel Family Professor of Management Science, and Andrew McAfee, a principal research scientist at MIT Sloan’s Center for Digital Business.

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