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Final Jeopardy: Man vs. Machine and the Quest to Know Everything Hardcover – February 17, 2011

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Editorial Reviews Review

What if there were a computer that could answer virtually any question? IBM engineers are developing such a machine, teaching it to compete on the quiz show Jeopardy. In February 2011, it will face off in a nationally televised game against two of the game’s greatest all-time winners, Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter. Final Jeopardy tells the riveting story behind the match.

Final Jeopardy carries readers on a captivating journey from the IBM lab to the podium. The story features brilliant Ph.D.s, Hollywood moguls, knowledge-obsessed Jeopardy masters — and a very special collection of silicon and circuitry named Watson. It is a classic match of Man vs. Machine, not seen since Deep Blue bested chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov. But Watson will need to do more than churn through chess moves or find a relevant web page. It will have to understand language, including puns and irony, and master everything from history and literature to science, arts, and entertainment.

At its heart, Final Jeopardy is about the future of knowledge. What can we teach machines? What will Watson’s heirs be capable of in ten or twenty years? And where does that leave humans? 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.

A Q & A With Author Stephen Baker

Q: What did you come to most admire about the researchers working to develop Watson?

A: I found myself admiring their meticulous engineering. I’ve always enjoyed stories of great engineering, from the building of the Panama Canal to the rescue of Apollo 13. The work on Watson fits into that genre. It involves continual problem-solving, innovations, incremental improvements, and above all, endless patience. To do this work, the Jeopardy team had to break down the way we think, the way we understand sentences and concepts and facts, into tiny components, and then teach them to Watson.

I have to say, I came out of this process with an ever greater appreciation for the magic that takes place between our ears. We don’t give ourselves enough credit. Seriously. They had to build a roaring complex of computers and supply it with enough electricity to light up an entire town, all this just to approximate the question-answering part of the organ we carry in our heads. Unlike Watson, our thinking machines can run for hours on just a cup of coffee and a donut.

Q: What was most surprising to you about Watson’s behavior?

A: Two things: First, its speed. When researchers describe all of the work it takes for a machine to make sense of a question and hunt down possible answers, it makes perfect sense that the process would take a computer two hours. And in the beginning, it did. The fact that they engineered that two-hour process into a mere three seconds is astounding.

The second surprise was that Watson could be so amazingly smart on one question, then laughably clueless on the next. How could it ever conclude that the Russian word for good-bye would be "cholesterol"? How could it confuse Oliver Twist with the Pet Shop Boys? But you know what? I found that when I watched Watson screw up, I had even greater appreciation for the work involved when it got things right. If it got everything right, Watson wouldn’t be the fallible (and entertaining) machine that it is. It would just be magic--which really is not nearly as impressive.

Q: So who is in charge of picking the clues for the final match? Do you think the arrangements for the match are fair?

A: In the end, Jeopardy chose 30 games that the writers had prepared for the Jeopardy season that began in the summer of 2010—before they knew for sure that a man-machine match would take place. Each of the games was given a number. Then they had an outside compliance company select two of the games by number. I think they’ve made the game as fair as possible.

I should add that Watson’s scientific test comes from a bigger set of matches. The machine took on human champions in 56 matches in the fall of 2010. It won a majority of those matches. And for the field of question-answering, those games mean more than the televised showdown, simply because there are more of them.

Q: If you had to place bets, who do you think will win the match?

A: I would bet on the computer, because there’s only one computer facing two humans. Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter will compete against each other in areas where humans are presumably strongest—clues associated with puns, humor, and difficult context. The computer, I would think, might dominate in the factual realms it "understands." That said, I’d never wager much on one game. One lucky Daily Double or Final Jeopardy can decide a single match.

Q: Should people who don’t watch Jeopardy care about this story? If so, why?

A: Jeopardy is just a showcase for a new type of machine. Look, we’re going to be living with these things, working with them, and using them as external lobes of our brains. Final Jeopardy follows the education of one such machine. Readers, I’m hoping, will get a feel for its potential as well as its limitations. And that will help them understand what skills and knowledge they’ll need to carry around in their own heads. Of course, I’m also hoping they’ll enjoy the story.

Q: Doesn’t Google already answer all our questions? What makes Watson so special?

A: Google is so useful that we sometimes forget how much more it could tell us. First, it doesn’t answer questions. It usually just points in the direction of the information we’re looking for and leaves the rest of the brain work to us. Watson, by contrast, puts together pieces of information from different sources and comes up with answers or hypotheses. A simple example. Let’s say you want to buy a dog for your aging parents. It has to be small, quiet, well-behaved, able to tolerate long periods indoors, and friendly enough to sit on a lap. A hunt for such a dog on a search engine would require lots of different searches (unless someone had happened to write an article about precisely that challenge). But a machine like Watson would understand the sentence in English, read through several thousand documents, and put together a list of candidate dogs. It acts much more like a knowledgeable person.

Q: Did Watson become more or less "human-like" to you over the course of the project?

A: It’s funny. When it’s playing Jeopardy, I find myself referring to it as “him .” But when you hang around with the researchers, the human evaporates and Watson returns to its truer form, that of an enormously sophisticated computer program. Sometimes it’s tempting to think of Watson as a “brain.” But as you deal with it, you see that it’s not even close to a full brain. It just handles information retrieval and question-answering. In short, it’s a tool.

Q: How does the rest of the computing world see Watson? Is this the true path to Artificial Intelligence?

A: Many folks in AI resent Watson, some of them to the point of loathing. You see, there’s this dream of building machines that blend the intelligence of humans with the data-processing wizardry of computers. For people who hold that vision—and many still do—Watson is almost a false prophet. In the realm of Jeopardy, it acts like a human. But instead of processing information the way we do, it just crunches numbers. It doesn’t really know or understand anything, or come up with ideas. Yet it works—and it gets to parade its smarts on national TV! If we as a society settle for machines like Watson, will we continue to fund the ambitious research that seeks to replicate the magic of the human brain? For many, that’s the true path to AI. But as far as I’m concerned, there doesn’t have to be just one path.

Q:How did IBM decide what to name Watson and who created its public image?

A:There was lots of debate within IBM about Watson’s name and image. How human should it be? Many worried that the public would view Watson as scary: a machine that learns our secrets and steals our jobs. So they decided to limit Watson’s human qualities. They would give its friendly, masculine voice a machine-like overtone. And its face, if you could call it that, would simply be a circular avatar—no eyes, nose or mouth, just streaming patterns representing flowing data. Despite these choices, I’ve noticed that fellow Jeopardy players immediately start to respond to Watson as another human—and not necessarily a friendly one. It’s playing the game, after all. And it usually beats them.

As far as the name, IBM entertained loads of possibilities. They considered THINQ, Ace, even EureQA, a blend of Eureka with QA, for question answering. In the end, they picked Watson, for IBM’s founder, Thomas J. Watson. In the literary world, it also fit into the stories of Sherlock Holmes, a master question-answerer. Of course, in those stories, Watson was only the assistant to the true genius. But considering the widespread fears surrounding smart computers, maybe it made sense to name the question-answering machine after Holmes’ plodding number two.

Q:If Watson-like systems do become ubiquitous, what will that mean for humans?

A:There’s no question about it. Machines like Watson are going to become part of our lives. They’ll be manning call centers, answering questions in offices, factories and emergency rooms. And they’ll be available to all of us through our smart phones, often answering spoken questions. This intelligence will become, de facto, part of the human brain. Each one of us will have to figure out how to leverage these smart systems for our own good—and not be replaced by them. Our brains are still the most intricate, complex and brilliant thinking machines on earth. But we have to figure out how to use them in concert with the machinery we’re building.

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Forget chess-a television game show is the ultimate test of a thinking machine. Former Business Week technology writer Baker (The Numerati) delivers a sprightly account of IBM's quest to create a computer program, dubbed Watson, that can win at Jeopardy. Baker deftly explores the immense challenge that Jeopardy-style "question answering" poses to a computer, which must comprehend the nuances, obscurities, and puns of natural language and master everything from Sumerian history to Superbowl winners. Watson is both an information-processing juggernaut, searching millions of documents per second, and a child-like naïf with odd speech impediments that thinks the Al in Alcoa stands for Al Capone (one embarrassing gaffe in a practice match prompted programmers to install a profanity filter). Like a cross between Born Yesterday and 2001: A Space Odyssey, Baker's narrative is both charming and terrifying; as Watson's intelligence relentlessly increases, we envision whole job sectors, from call center operators and marketing analysts to, well, quiz-show contestants, vanishing overnight. The result is an entertaining romp through the field of artificial intelligence-and a sobering glimpse of things to come. The book's final chapter, covering the actual games, which will air in mid-February, was not seen by PW.
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (February 17, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0547483163
  • ISBN-13: 978-0547483160
  • Product Dimensions: 8.5 x 5.8 x 1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 5.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (35 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,246,726 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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More About the Author

I was lucky to be able to spend most of 2010 with the team at IBM that was educating Watson, the computer that the next winter would be taking on human champions in the game of Jeopardy. It seemed apparent to me as I was reporting and writing the Watson book, Final Jeopardy--Man vs Machine and the Quest to Know Everything, that machines like Watson would change the way we manage knowledge, language and memory--in short, how we think. Computers would also be getting smaller and coming in closer contact with us, and perhaps eventually be implanted in our brains. So I took a break from non-fiction and wrote a novel about this future. That's The Boost.

A bit about my history. I graduated from college with a love of Spanish and a desire to be a writer. So I moved to Quito, Ecuador, taught English and wrote fiction. I couldn't sell my stories. So I turned to journalism, starting out at The Black River Tribune, in Ludlow, Vermont. My goal, though, was to be a foreign correspondent. So I freelanced in Spain and Argentina, got a job as a reporter at The Daily Journal in Caracas, Venezuela, and later, The El Paso Herald-Post. (Much of The Boost takes place along that section of the U.S.-Mexico border.) Finally I got a job as BusinessWeek's bureau chief in Mexico City, where I stayed for 5 and a half years and where my wife and I started our family (3 boys). We moved on to Pittsburgh, where I ended up spending a lot of time at Carnegie Mellon University and delving into technology. BW sent me to Paris in 1998 to cover European technology. We moved back to New York in 2002. Four years later, I wrote a cover story on the coming Big Data economy , Math Will Rock Your World. It led to The Numerati.

Shortly before leaving BusinessWeek, in December, 2009, I was visiting IBM Headquarters. Over lunch there I heard about the Jeopardy computer that researchers were building. That turned into Final Jeopardy.

Through 2013, I worked with Jonathan Bush, co-founder of athenahealth, on a book about our dysfunctional health care system, and how tech-savvy entrepreneurs could disrupt it. The book--Where Does it Hurt? An Entrepreneur's Guide to Fixing Health Care--comes out in May, 2014, a week before The Boost.

We live in Montclair, NJ, and our sons are in Pittsburgh, Madison, Wi, and Seattle.

Customer Reviews

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The match will be much more fun to watch having read this book.
Judith B. Miller
I have always enjoyed watching "Jeopardy," and I had been hearing about Watson and his Jeopardy battle with Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter for a while.
Grace P.
I finished the book last night and am looking forward now to the match this next week.

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

15 of 15 people found the following review helpful By Len Edgerly on February 9, 2011
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
Stephen Baker's account of the creation and teaching of IBM's Watson computer, preparing it for the climactic Jeopardy contest with the two top living human Jeopardy champions, is a delight to read AND a highly informative overview of artificial intelligence and the role computers will play in our lives from here on out. You get to know and appreciate the complex, talented characters of the story at IBM and in Hollywood. The growing sense of drama makes the book un-put-downable. Will IBM's engineers prepare Watson to figure out the pun-filled, playful and quirky categories of Jeopardy? Will the Hollywood execs agree to fair terms of engagement? And, most intriguingly, who will win the final showdown?

I love what Baker's publisher has done with the Kindle version of this book - making the first 11 chapters available well before the showdown Jeopardy match airs on Feb. 14-15-16. After the actual match took place, in great secrecy, Baker wrote the final chapter of his book, which will arrive as a Kindle download the day after the final match, when the hardcover will also be available, with all the chapters. This is a fantastic use of e-book technology, so bravo to Houghton Mifflin for such a clever and Kindle-friendly innovation.

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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful By Tim on February 12, 2011
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
Heard the author's interview with Len Edgerly on the Kindle Chronicles on February 5, 2011 (TKC 133). Had to purchase and read the book after listening. I finished the book last night and am looking forward now to the match this next week. I learned a lot about what IBM had to do to get ready for the match and the problems that needed to be overcome. I would recommend this book to anyone who would like to know about AI and especially about the people who are working on this project. I am thankful to the publisher for putting the book out in e-book form prior to the match. I really look forward to reading the last chapter this next week!!!
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful By 12milluz on July 23, 2011
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
I got this book because I am intrigued with Jeopardy (my best friend was a participant in the show before) and I love computers. When I first heard about Watson, I was very interested in what they were doing. I thought this book would be the perfect source to learn more.

It is written fantastically and is fun to read, but it does not go into the technology too much, which is what I was looking for. Still, I enjoyed reading and learning. I had no idea how many problems there were with both the technology and the business aspect of the program. The book goes into the areas of logic and AI as well, and gives some history of IBM and its chess-playing computer of the past.

Anyone who's looking for a nice, easy read should take a look at this book. Techies: It probably won't fill your needs in terms of describing the technology, but it's still fun to read. There isn't any other source as complete as this on Watson. Take a look!
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Don Tennant on February 19, 2011
Format: Hardcover
I had the opportunity to read an advance copy of Final Jeopardy that was released prior to the match, without the final chapter about the outcome. When the match aired, I felt like I was seeing a bunch of old friends who had managed to get themselves on TV. Watson was only one of my new best buds. I also got a kick out of seeing the cast of characters at IBM whom I had come to know through Steve Baker's book. I found myself unapologetically rooting for them, and being exhilarated by their victory, having gotten a behind-the-scenes sense of just how much of themselves the IBMers had given to make the miracle of Watson happen.

I attribute all of that to Baker's remarkable story-telling and character-developing abilities, which enabled him to craft an engaging narrative about a labyrinthine project and esoteric subject matter that might easily have confounded the non-engineers among us. The most richly developed character was Watson him/her/itself, not through any cutesy, artificial anthropomorphism, but though a mosaic of triumphs and setbacks that seemed to transcend the IBM team that created it.

Baker managed to put it all in a context that enables us to grasp the potential of Watson and the computer systems that will follow it, so that we can appreciate that what might on the surface have appeared to be little more than self-indulgent technological gimmickry was actually a quest to improve people's lives in ways that could only be vaguely imagined in the very recent past. Watson, in the end, is a proof of concept that will ultimately benefit us all. Its creation is an uplifting tale, and one that warranted a gifted writer to tell it. It's fortunate that Baker rose to that occasion.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By Loyd E. Eskildson HALL OF FAME on February 28, 2011
Format: Hardcover
IBM's Watson computer soundly defeated the two highest-rated Jeopardy former champions earlier this year, signifying the dawn of a new age of computer-assisted decision-making. It was also a massive marketing coup for IBM and Jeopardy. Stephen Baker's "Final Jeopardy" reports on how Watson came to this latest achievement, along with hints of what comes next.

Originally computers were limited to rapidly processing data according to predefined rules, first for individual questions (eg. military applications), then larger and larger batches of commercial data, and eventually immediate 'real-time' response. Next came IBM's 'Deep Blue' defeat of the reigning 1997 chess champion, Garry Kasperov, demonstrating its ability to analyze millions of scenarios/second to select the moves most likely to win - an impressive new mathematical achievement. Winning Jeopardy, however, required the computer to analyze English natural-language words and phrases, despite confusing puns, idioms, allusions, double-meanings, trick questions, and the importance of syntax, and then select the most likely correct answer from a giant electronic database containing Project Gutenberg (33,000 highly rated e-books), dictionaries, taxonomies, thesauri, encyclopedias, news articles, book abstracts, famous works of music and art, etc., without an Internet connection - all within a maximum of five seconds. Watson also had to determine optimal betting strategies, taking into account current point rankings, as well as the potential earnings and betting opportunities remaining.

David Ferrucci, an artificial intelligence (AI) expert within IBM was selected to lead its Jeopardy effort.
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