Final Jeopardy: The Story of Watson, the Computer That Will Transform Our World

Final Jeopardy: The Story of Watson, the Computer That Will Transform Our World

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“The place to go if you’re really interested in this version of the quest for creating Artificial Intelligence (AI).”—Seattle Times For centuries, people have dreamed of creating a machine that thinks like a human. Scientists have made progress: computers can now beat chess grandmasters and help prevent terrorist attacks. Yet we still await a machine that exhibits the rich complexity of human thought—one that doesn’t just crunch numbers, or take us to a relevant Web page, but understands us and gives us what we need. With the creation of Watson, IBM’s Jeopardy! playing computer, we are one step closer to that goal. But how did we get here? In Final Jeopardy, Stephen Baker traces the arc of Watson’s “life,” from its birth in the IBM labs to its big night on the podium. We meet Hollywood moguls and Jeopardy! masters, genius computer programmers and ambitious scientists, including Watson’s eccentric creator, David Ferrucci. We see how a new generation of Watsons could transform medicine, the law, marketing, even science itself, as machines process huge amounts of data at lightning speed, answer our questions, and possibly come up with new hypotheses. As fast and fun as the game itself, Final Jeopardy shows how smart machines will fit into our world—and how they’ll disrupt it. “Like Tracy Kidder’s Soul of a New Machine, Baker’s book finds us at the dawn of a singularity. It’s an excellent case study, and does good double duty as a Philip K. Dick scenario, too.”—Kirkus Reviews “Baker’s narrative is both charming and terrifying . . . an entertaining romp through the field of artificial intelligence—and a sobering glimpse of things to come.”—Publishers Weekly, starred review

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  • Format: eBook

  • ISBN-13/EAN: 9780547519432

  • ISBN-10: 0547519435

  • Pages: 288

  • Price: $9.99

  • Publication Date: 02/27/2011

  • Carton Quantity: 1

Stephen Baker

Stephen Baker

STEPHEN BAKER was BusinessWeek's senior technology writer for a decade, based first in Paris and later New York. He has also written for the Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe, and the Wall Street Journal. Roger Lowenstein called his first book, The Numerati, "an eye-opening and chilling book." Baker blogs at
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  • reviews
    "The book is the place to go if you're really interested in this version of the quest for creating Artificial Intelligence (AI) . . . Lively." -Seattle Times

    "Baker skillfully weaves the two threads of the story together, and the book contains many passages that make the reader not only assess what they think but how they think, and how they have absorbed and stored the knowledge they possess. It’s books like this that remind us there is still so much we don’t understand about our own brains, and that the journey of discovery has only just begun." -Culture Mob

    "Baker's narrative is both charming and entertaining romp through the field of artificial intelligence - and a sobering glimpse of things to come." -STARRED, Publishers Weekly
  • excerpts


    Watson paused. The closest thing it had to a face, a glowing

    orb on a flat-panel screen, turned from forest green to

    a dark shade of blue. Filaments of yellow and red streamed

    steadily across it, like the paths of jets circumnavigating the

    globe. This pattern represented a state of quiet anticipation

    as the supercomputer awaited the next clue. It was a September

    morning in 2010 at IBM Research, in the hills north of

    New York City, and the computer, known as Watson, was annihilating

    two humans, both champion players, in practice

    rounds of Jeopardy! Within months, it would be playing the

    game on national television in a million-dollar man vs. machine

    match against two of Jeopardy ’s all-time greats.

     As Todd Crain, an actor and the host of these test games,

    started to read the next clue, the filaments on Watson’s display

    began to jag and tremble. Watson was thinking — or coming

    as close to it as a computer could. The $1,600 clue, in the category

    The Eyes Have It, read: “This facial ware made Israel’s

    Moshe Dayan instantly recognizable worldwide.”

     The three players — two human and one electronic — could

    read the words as soon as they appeared on the big Jeopardy

    board. But they had to wait for Crain to read the entire clue

    before buzzing. That was the rule. As the host pronounced

    the last word, a light would signal that contestants could buzz.

    The first to hit the button could win $1,600 with the right answer

    — or lose the same amount with a wrong one. (In these

    test matches, they played with funny money.)

     This pause for reading gave Watson three or four seconds

    to hunt down the answer. The first step was to figure out what

    the clue meant. One of its programs promptly picked apart

    the grammar of the sentence, identifying the verbs, objects,

    and key words. In another section, research focused on Moshe

    Dayan. Was this a person? A place in Israel? Perhaps a holy

    site? Names like John and Maria would signal a person. But

    Moshe was more puzzling.

     During these seconds, Watson’s cognitive apparatus —

    2,208 computer processors working in concert — mounted a

    massive research operation through thousands of documents

    around Moshe Dayan and his signature facial ware. After

    a second or so, different programs, or algorithms, began to

    suggest hundreds of possible answers. To us, many of them

    would look like wild guesses. Some were phrases that Dayan

    had uttered, others were references to his military campaigns

    and facts about Israel. Still others cited various articles of his

    clothing. At this point, the computer launched its second

    stage of analysis, figuring out which response, if any, merited

    its confidence. It proceeded to check and recheck facts, making

    sure that Moshe Dayan was indeed a person, an Israeli,

    and that the answer referred to something he wore on his face.

     A person looking at Watson’s frantic and repetitive labors

    might conclude that the player was unsure of itself, laughably

    short on common sense, and scandalously wasteful of com-

    puting resources. This was all true. Watson barked up every

    tree from every conceivable angle. The pattern on its screen

    during this process, circles exploding into little stars, provided

    only a hint of the industrial-scale computing at work. In a

    room behind the podium, visible through a horizontal window,

    Watson’s computers churned, and the fans cooling them

    roared. This time, its three seconds of exertion paid off. Watson

    came up with a response, sending a signal to a mechanical

    device on the podium. It was the size of a large aspirin bottle

    with a clear plastic covering. Inside was a Jeopardy buzzer.

    About one one-hundredth of a second later, a metal finger inside

    this contraption shot downward, pressing the button.

     Justin Bernbach, a thirty-eight-year-old airline lobbyist

    from Brooklyn, stood to Watson’s left. He had pocketed

    $155,000 while winning seven straight Jeopardy matches in

    2009. Unlike Watson, Bernbach understood the sentence. He

    knew precisely who Moshe Dayan was as soon as he saw the

    clue, and he carried an image of the Israeli leader in his mind.

    He gripped the buzzer in his fist and frantically pressed it four

    or five times as the light came on.

     But Watson had arrived first.

     “Watson?” said Crain.

     The computer’s amiable male voice arranged the answer,

    as Jeopardy demands, in the form of a question: “What is eye


     “Very good,” Crain said. “An eye patch on his lefteye.

    Choose again, Watson.”

     Bernbach slumped at his podium. This match with the

    machine wasn’t going well.

    It was going magnificently for David Ferrucci. As the chief scientist

    of the team developing the Jeopardy computer, Ferrucci

    was feeling vindicated. Only three years earlier, the suggestion

    that a computer might match wits and word skills with human

    champions in Jeopardy sparked opposition bordering on

    ridicule in the halls of IBM Research. And the final goal of

    the venture, a nationally televised match against two Jeopardy

    legends, Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter, seemed risky to some,

    a bit déclassé to others. Jeopardy, a television show, appeared

    to lack the timeless cachet of chess, which IBM computers

    had mastered a decade earlier.

     Nonetheless, Ferrucci and his team went ahead and built

    their machine. Months earlier, it had fared well in a set of

    test matches. But the games revealed flaws in the machine’s

    logic and game strategy. It was a good player, but to beat Jennings

    and Rutter, who would be jousting for a million-dollar

    top prize, it would have to be great. So they had worked

    long hours over the summer to revamp Watson. This September

    event was the coming-out party for Watson 2.0. It was

    the first of fifty-six test matches against a higher level of competitor:

    people, like Justin Bernbach, who had won enough

    matches to compete in Jeopardy ’s Tournament of Champions.

     In these early matches, Watson was having its way with

    them. Ferrucci, monitoring the matches from a crowded observation

    booth, was all smiles. Keen to promote its Jeopardy

    phenom, IBM’s advertising agency, Ogilvy & Mather, had

    hired a film crew to follow Ferrucci’s team and capture the

    drama of this opening round of championship matches. The

    observation room was packed with cameras. Microphones on

    long booms recorded the back-and-forth of engineers as they

    discussed algorithms and Watson’s response time, known as

    latency. Ferrucci, wearing a mike on his lapel, gave a blow-byblow

    commentary as Watson, on the other side of the glass,

    strutted its new and smarter self.

     It was almost as if Watson, like a person giddy with hubris,

    was primed for a fall. The computer certainly had its

    weaknesses. Even when functioning smoothly, it would make

    its share of wacky mistakes. Right before the lunch break,

    one clue asked about “the inspiration for this title object in

    a novel and a 1957 movie [which] actually spanned the Mae

    Khlung.” Now, it would be reasonable for a computer to miss

    “The Bridge over the River Kwai,” especially since the actual

    river has a different name. Perhaps Watson had trouble understanding

    the sentence, which was convoluted at best. But

    how did the computer land on its outlandish response, “What

    is Kafka?” Ferrucci didnR...

Available Resources

Related Categories

  • Format: eBook

  • ISBN-13/EAN: 9780547519432

  • ISBN-10: 0547519435

  • Pages: 288

  • Price: $9.99

  • Publication Date: 02/27/2011

  • Carton Quantity: 1

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