It would have no problem with repetition, but it might find avoiding hesitation difficult and preventing accusations of deviation pretty much impossible.

To win the game “Just a minute!” you need much more than a good memory and the ability to fully understand the meaning of a question, skills impressively demonstrated by IBM’s Watson computer when it crushed Jeopardy contestants in February.

Unlike other quizzes, the BBC Radio 4 panel game (still running since 1967) cannot be won by just reciting a textbook response to a question.

But what’s the secret of Just a minute’s success?

‘I think it’s because the format is insanely basic’

David Quantick, radio comedy writer, talking about the BBC panel game which is still running after 43 years on the air

The mere fact that you have to avoid repetition of a single word when delivering one minute’s-worth of relevant and coherent narrative may be beyond any machine which relies exclusively upon an encyclopaedic knowledgebase and an algorithm which substitutes synonyms for recurring words.

  • Will it be able to spot, challenge and articulate genuine deviations in the other contestants orations?
  • Will it be able to be (intentionally) entertaining? (other contestants include professional comedians and points can be scored for giving entertaining challenges)
  • Will it hesitate as it struggles to find relevant material?
  • Will it introduce unintentionally inappropriate synonyms which will be challenged as deviation?

My own take?

Even if Watson manages to secure an early lead, the other contestants may quickly devise a strategy based upon challenges which specifically target perceived weaknesses in Watson’s appreciation of culture, idiom and the British sense of humour.

Personally, I would be intrigued to hear how Watson copes with such the need to expound continuously for sixty seconds upon the obscure kinds of subjects which crop up which have, I’m informed, included titles such as ‘My Favourite Socks’, or ‘How I Would Describe Myself to an Alien’.

Even if it all goes horribly wrong, the whole thing holds out the strong prospect of being a hilarious crowd-pleaser.

Here are the rules of Just a minute (as described by Wikipedia):

The four panellists are challenged to speak for one minute on a given subject without “repetition, hesitation, or deviation“.

  • “Repetition” means the repetition of any word or phrase, although challenges based upon very common words such as “and” are generally rejected except in extreme cases. Words contained in the given subject are exempt unless repeated many times in quick succession. Skilful players use synonyms in order to avoid repeating themselves. The term “BBC” can be successfully challenged for repetition of “B”.
  • “Hesitation” is watched very strictly: a momentary pause before resumption of the subject can give rise to a successful challenge, as can tripping over one’s words. Even pausing during audience laughter or applause (known as “riding a laugh”) can be challenged.
  • “Deviation” means deviating from the subject, but has also been interpreted as “deviating from the English language as we know it”, “deviation from grammar as we understand it”, deviating from the truth, and deviation from logic, although often leaps into the surreal are allowed.

A panellist scores a point for making a correct challenge against whoever is speaking, while the speaker gets a point if the challenge is deemed incorrect.

However, if a witty interjection amuses the audience, even though it is not a correct challenge, both the challenger and speaker may gain a point, at the chairman’s discretion. A player who makes a correct challenge takes over the subject for the remainder of the minute, or until he or she is correctly challenged.

The person speaking when the 60 seconds expires also scores a point.

An extra point is awarded when a panellist speaks for the entire minute without being challenged.

And if even that doesn’t work out, there’s a version of the game called ‘Just a minim’ (a subgame of that other legendary panel game I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue) which introduces an additional requirement for Watson to employ musical ‘skills’ and takes the need to avoid repetition to potentially unimaginably demanding levels of creativity in an effort to deal with the fact that having to repeat the chorus of a song without repeating the same words gets harder and harder as the song progresses and all of the obvious synonyms are quickly used up.