Games & Humor
1:00 pm
Mon March 12, 2012

'Dr. Fill' New E-Competitor At Crossword Contest

There's a new kind of technology that may be able to beat you at your own game — at least if your game is a crossword puzzle. Its name is "Dr. Fill," but unlike the TV psychologist, this doctor solves less complicated problems. Its solutions only go down and across.

The computer program will be an unofficial competitor at the 35th annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament in New York this week. It was created by Matt Ginsberg's software company, On Time Systems, which specializes in optimization algorithms.

Ginsberg actually constructs crossword puzzles for The New York Times, but say's he isn't a very good solver.

"I figured this would be a way for me to become a better solver sort of through a proxy," he says.

The way Dr. Fill solves crossword puzzles isn't unlike the way its human counterparts do. It looks at all the clues, tries to understand them and then fills in words, trying not to make mistakes.

"But its understanding of the constraints that come from the crossing words is much stronger, and it's doing much more sophisticated numerical analyses," Ginsberg says.

New York Times crossword editor Will Shortz says he looks forward to watching Dr. Fill perform at the tournament this year.

"Solving crosswords involves so much knowledge, so much stuff that's not in books, that's not in any database, that it is amazing to think that a computer could solve a crossword," Shortz says.

But the good doctor is not without its flaws. Ginsberg says Dr. Fill doesn't do well with the pun-filled answers.

"Somebody may have a puzzle that's about rabbits. And they'll have Bunny and Clyde, which is a clue in some bizarre way. And Dr. Fill knows about Bonnie and Clyde, but it has no idea about Bunny and Clyde. That's not a phrase that's in any of its dictionaries," he says. "And somehow it has to realize, oh, Bonnie and Clyde is wrong, Bunny and Clyde is right."

Dr. Fill might bring to mind IBM's Watson, which bested two Jeopardy champs last year. Just before Ken Jennings lost to Watson, he joked: "I, for one, welcome our new computer overlords."

But, fellow humans, take heart — there's always the off switch.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Now, to the kind of technology that may be able to beat us at our own game. Or in this case, a crossword puzzle. And here's your clue from New York Times Crossword Puzzle Editor Will Shortz.

WILL SHORTZ: The world's best crossword solving program.

BLOCK: The answer: Dr. Fill. That's F-I-L-L, not to be confused with the talk show host of a similar name.

(SOUNDBITE OF TALK SHOW, "DR. PHIL")

DR. PHIL MCGRAW: Let's do it. I want you to get excited about your life...

BLOCK: No, this Dr. Fill solves less complicated problems with solutions that just go down and across. It's a computer program and it will be an unofficial competitor at the 35th Annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament later this week.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Matt Ginsberg is CEO of On Time Systems, a software company that specializes in optimization algorithms, and the creator of Dr. Fill. He also constructs crossword puzzles for The New York Times, though he admits...

MATT GINSBERG: I'm a terrible solver. And I figured this would be a way for me to become a better solver sort of through a proxy.

BLOCK: The way Dr. Fill solves crossword puzzles isn't unlike the way its human counterparts do. It looks at all the clues, tries to understand them and then fills in words trying not to make mistakes.

GINSBERG: But its understanding of the constraints that come from the crossing words is much stronger, and it's doing much more sophisticated numerical analyses.

SHORTZ: Solving crosswords involves so much knowledge, so much stuff that's not in books, that's not in any database - that it is amazing to think that a computer could solve a crossword.

BLOCK: That again is Will Shortz who directs the crossword puzzle tournament. He's also NPR's puzzle-master on WEEKEND EDITION SUNDAY. Shortz says he looks forward to seeing Dr. Fill live up to its name. But the good doctor is not without its flaws.

Again, here's Matt Ginsberg.

GINSBERG: Somebody may have a puzzle that's about rabbits. And they'll have Bunny and Clyde, which is a clue in some bizarre way. And Dr. Fill knows about Bonnie and Clyde but it has no idea about Bunny and Clyde. That's not a phrase that's in any of its dictionaries. And somehow it has to realize, oh, Bonnie and Clyde is wrong, Bunny and Clyde is right.

CORNISH: Dr. Fill might bring to mind a certain computer system that bested two "Jeopardy" champs, Brad Rutter and Ken Jennings, last year - IBM's Watson.

(SOUNDBITE OF GAME SHOW, "JEOPARDY")

ALEC TREBEK: Go again.

WATSON: Beatles People, for 200.

TREBEK: And any time you feel the pain, hey, this guy, refrain. Don't carry the world upon your shoulders. Watson.

WATSON: Who is Jude?

TREBEK: Yes.

BLOCK: Just before Ken Jennings lost to Watson, he joked that he, for one, welcomes what he called our new computer overlords.

But fellow humans take heart, there's always the off switch.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HEY JUDE")

THE BEATLES: (Singing) And any time you feel the pain, hey Jude, refrain. Don't carry the world upon your shoulders. For well you know that it's a fool who plays it cool by making this world a little colder. Na na na, na na, na na na na. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.

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