Indeed, when I called Watson’s creators to ask how the supercomputer controls its buzzer, they admitted that Watson does have a strong built-in advantage. According to David Shepler, who is IBM’s Challenge Program Manager for the Watson project, “The buzzer is enabled when the clue is done being read, when Alex Trebek gets to that last syllable, and the guy off stage pushes a button. That’s when people can buzz in, and at the same time a signal is sent to Watson saying the same thing—telling Watson that it can buzz in if it so desires.” This is akin to playing against an opponent with near-perfect reflexes. “When we built the demonstration system, the first incarnation of a fully functioning game-playing Watson, Watson was buzzing in electronically,” Shepler said, but they decided this was too unfair. IBM added an electromagnetic “hand” to Watson that will depress an actual buzzer which gives the humans a little more time, but not much. Asked if Watson still has an advantage under the new arrangement, Shepler told me that experienced players will sometimes get the jump on the supercomputer because they can anticipate the end of a clue, “but it's true that on average a machine has very good reflexes. The machine is probably going to beat a human at buzzing.” And the computer will never buzz in too early and get locked out.
My comments: Watson seems to have an excellent command of basic facts, but his main advantage against the humans appears to be his speed with the buzzer. During the broadcast, Alex explained that Watson is given the electronic text of the clue immediately when the clue is revealed on the board. I think it's safe to say that the computer can read the text faster than the humans can. It would be a more interesting competition if Watson used a camera to read the board or a microphone to listen to the clues.