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(top) Quiz Bowl team members joined alumni to take on Watson during Reunion & Homecoming.
(bottom) Nimit Dhulekar, Ph.D. student; Vincent Butrus, Class of 2015; Watson developer David Ferrucci, Ph.D. ‘94; Computer Science Professor Mukkai Krishnamoorthy, who was a mentor to Ferrucci; Matthew Greenbacker, Class of 2012; and Joseph Weigartner, Class of 2015.
Photos by Scott Barrow and Kris Qua

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Quiz Bowl Team Takes on Watson and Jennings

At Reunion in October, two freshmen — Joe Wiegartner and Vinnie Butrus from Rensselaer’s Quiz Bowl Team — were each paired with an alumnus (Lee Croke ’61 and Barry Fishkin ’61) to compete in a game of Jeopardy! against Watson, the new IBM supercomputer. Watson is an innovative computer that can answer questions in a coherent language with accuracy and speed.

“Being able to play Watson in Jeopardy! was truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” said Butrus, a freshman majoring in chemical engineering. “It was stressful sometimes being put on the spot, especially with the Daily Doubles, but we also had a lot of fun playing the game.”

Butrus was partnered with Fishkin ’61, who competed as a member of the Rensselaer College Bowl team on General Electric’s popular television game. The show featured teams competing for scholarships for their schools by answering question across a wide range of disciplines. Rensselaer’s team was coached by Ernest Livingstone, professor of modern languages. In 1961, the team won the silver College Bowl trophy commemorating the team’s undefeated victory and $9,000 in scholarship money for the Institute.

The IBM Watson supercomputer project was developed by IBM’s lead scientist, David Ferrucci, Ph.D. ’94, and programmed by 25 IBM scientists within four years. Adam Lally ’98, a member on the algorithms team, helped Watson understand and answer questions in designing its Deep QA Architecture. And Chris Welty ’85 taught Watson how to respond and process language utilizing a set of ontologies that assist computer scientists in encoding meanings into a comprehensible language for computers.

The Quiz Bowl Team has been active on campus since Aaron Cohen, a senior in chemistry, started the team in fall 2008. The team represents the Institute by competing against other academically excellent institutions such as Yale, Harvard, Brown, and MIT. Each year the team attends eight tournaments, most involving medium levels of difficulty, but some are geared toward newer players to help them gain a sense of the competition and the game’s context.

The National Academic Quiz Tournament’s Intercollegiate Championship Tournament (NAQT ICT) is the toughest and highest-ranking competition the team has attended for the past three years. During their first appearance at the NAQT ICT in 2009, the Quiz Bowl team finished third in Division II. “This was our first year of existence, and this came as a big surprise to the Quiz Bowl community,” said Cohen. Although the team has come close, they have yet to win a tournament, but some individuals have earned the title of highest scorer of the tournament.

“Being able to play Watson in Jeopardy! was truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience.” –Vinnie Butrus

Today the team consists of approximately 20 members who compete against fellow Northeastern colleges and universities in a trivia-based game with 20 toss-up questions that include progressively easier hints. Any team member can buzz in at any time, but only one try per team is allowed. The team who answers the toss-up correctly is given the opportunity to answer 10-point bonus questions within a five-second time span.

The academic material used can range from literature to science. The team prepares for the competition’s vast array of subjects by going through one to two packets of questionnaires each practice. Another strategy the team uses in covering the academic material is by assigning members different areas to study and specialize in.

The team is also a good competitive outlet for those who are not good at sports. For now, the team’s goals are focused on continuing to improve and perform to the best of their ability. It looks as if the Quiz Bowl team is here to stay and maybe one day the team will lead Rensselaer to another undefeated victory.

Who Is Ken Jennings?

The love affair with Jeopardy! continues at Rensselaer. Ken Jennings, all-time Jeopardy! champion, spoke to  a sold-out crowd as part of the Rensselaer Union Speakers Forum program. The event was held Oct. 27.

Jennings delivered remarks titled “Nothing Is Trivial,” a humor-filled talked that covered everything from his career as a software engineer, to his stints as a quiz show champion, to meeting the supercomputer Watson. And while he says modern technology has its perks, he also encouraged the audience not to rely on it too much. “You still have to have the facts in your head.”

Having made more than 70 appearances on the popular quiz show, Jennings has become known as the master  Jeopardy! player for his amazing memory, unparalleled buzzer technique, and the fact that he has approached a record near $2.5 million in winnings — an amount that is still climbing.

A member of  Brigham Young University’s College Quiz Bowl team in the 1990s, Jennings now writes and edits literature questions for the National Academic Quiz Bowl Tournament. Jennings, whose day job is as a software engineer at CHG, a healthcare placement firm, is also an avid comic book and movie buff. He is the author of the geography book Maphead: Charting the Wide, Weird World of Geography Wonks.

Following remarks, Jennings participated in a quick round of Jeopardy! with members of the Rensselaer Quiz Bowl team, Nimit Dhulekar, graduate student and club president, and Aaron Cohen ’12, vice president of the club (see story above).

And the winner was? Ken Jennings.  


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Inside Rensselaer
Volume 5, Number 18, November 18, 2011
©2011 Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
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