Final Jeopardy: Man vs. Machine and the Quest to Know Everything

Hardcover | March 1, 2011

byStephen Baker

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The thrilling story of the computer that can play Jeopardy! Alex Trebek: Meet Watson. 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.That vision has driven a team of engineers at IBM. Over three years, they created 'Watson' and prepared it for a showdown on Jeopardy!, where it would take on two of the game's all-time champions, Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter, in a nationally televised event. Final Jeopardy is the entertaining, illuminating story of that computer and that epic match.It's a classic tale of Man vs. Machine. Like its human competitors, Watson has to understand language, including puns and irony, and master everything from history, literature, and science to arts, entertainment, and game strategy. After years of training, Watson can find the scrambled state capital in 'Hair Gel' ('What is Raleigh?') and even come up with the facial accessory that made Moshe Dayan recognizable worldwide ('What is an eye patch?'). Watson may just be the smartest machine on earth. Final Jeopardy 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 gain access to Ferrucci's War Room, where the IBM team works tirelessly to boost Watson's speed to the buzzer, improve its performance in 'train wreck' categories (such as 'Books in Espanol'), and fix glitches like the speech defect Watson developed during its testing phase, when it started adding a d to words ending in n ('What is Pakistand?').Much is at stake, especially for IBM. 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.Showdown aside, it's clear that the future has arrived. But with it come questions: Where does it leave humans? What will Watson's heirs be capable of in ten or twenty years? Is it time to declare defeat in the realm of facts? What should we teach our children? And what should we carry around in our own heads? Final Jeopardy takes on these questions and more in a narrative that's as fast and fun as the game itself. Baker shows us how smart machines will fit into our world - and how they'll disrupt "

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From the Publisher

The thrilling story of the computer that can play Jeopardy! Alex Trebek: Meet Watson. 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 comple...

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 finaljeopardy.n...

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Format:HardcoverDimensions:288 pages, 8.25 × 5.5 × 0.9 inPublished:March 1, 2011Publisher:Houghton Mifflin HarcourtLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:0547483163

ISBN - 13:9780547483160


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Read from the Book

Introduction Watson paused. The closest thing it had to a face, a glowingorb on a flat-panel screen, turned from forest green toa dark shade of blue. Filaments of yellow and red streamedsteadily across it, like the paths of jets circumnavigating theglobe. This pattern represented a state of quiet anticipationas the supercomputer awaited the next clue. It was a Septembermorning in 2010 at IBM Research, in the hills north ofNew York City, and the computer, known as Watson, was annihilatingtwo humans, both champion players, in practicerounds of Jeopardy! Within months, it would be playing thegame on national television in a million-dollar man vs. machinematch 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 displaybegan to jag and tremble. Watson was thinking — or comingas close to it as a computer could. The $1,600 clue, in the categoryThe Eyes Have It, read: “This facial ware made Israel’sMoshe Dayan instantly recognizable worldwide.” The three players — two human and one electronic — couldread the words as soon as they appeared on the big Jeopardyboard. But they had to wait for Crain to read the entire cluebefore buzzing. That was the rule. As the host pronouncedthe 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 thesetest matches, they played with funny money.) This pause for reading gave Watson three or four secondsto hunt down the answer. The first step was to figure out whatthe clue meant. One of its programs promptly picked apartthe grammar of the sentence, identifying the verbs, objects,and key words. In another section, research focused on MosheDayan. Was this a person? A place in Israel? Perhaps a holysite? Names like John and Maria would signal a person. ButMoshe was more puzzling. During these seconds, Watson’s cognitive apparatus —2,208 computer processors working in concert — mounted amassive research operation through thousands of documentsaround Moshe Dayan and his signature facial ware. Aftera second or so, different programs, or algorithms, began tosuggest hundreds of possible answers. To us, many of themwould look like wild guesses. Some were phrases that Dayanhad uttered, others were references to his military campaignsand facts about Israel. Still others cited various articles of hisclothing. At this point, the computer launched its secondstage of analysis, figuring out which response, if any, meritedits confidence. It proceeded to check and recheck facts, makingsure 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 laborsmight conclude that the player was unsure of itself, laughablyshort on common sense, and scandalously wasteful of com-puting resources. This was all true. Watson barked up everytree from every conceivable angle. The pattern on its screenduring this process, circles exploding into little stars, providedonly a hint of the industrial-scale computing at work. In aroom behind the podium, visible through a horizontal window,Watson’s computers churned, and the fans cooling themroared. This time, its three seconds of exertion paid off. Watsoncame up with a response, sending a signal to a mechanicaldevice on the podium. It was the size of a large aspirin bottlewith a clear plastic covering. Inside was a Jeopardy buzzer.About one one-hundredth of a second later, a metal finger insidethis contraption shot downward, pressing the button. Justin Bernbach, a thirty-eight-year-old airline lobbyistfrom Brooklyn, stood to Watson’s left. He had pocketed$155,000 while winning seven straight Jeopardy matches in2009. Unlike Watson, Bernbach understood the sentence. Heknew precisely who Moshe Dayan was as soon as he saw theclue, and he carried an image of the Israeli leader in his mind.He gripped the buzzer in his fist and frantically pressed it fouror 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 eyepatch?” “Very good,” Crain said. “An eye patch on his lefteye.Choose again, Watson.” Bernbach slumped at his podium. This match with themachine wasn’t going well. It was going magnificently for David Ferrucci. As the chief scientistof the team developing the Jeopardy computer, Ferrucciwas feeling vindicated. Only three years earlier, the suggestionthat a computer might match wits and word skills with humanchampions in Jeopardy sparked opposition bordering onridicule in the halls of IBM Research. And the final goal ofthe venture, a nationally televised match against two Jeopardylegends, Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter, seemed risky to some,a bit déclassé to others. Jeopardy, a television show, appearedto lack the timeless cachet of chess, which IBM computershad mastered a decade earlier. Nonetheless, Ferrucci and his team went ahead and builttheir machine. Months earlier, it had fared well in a set oftest matches. But the games revealed flaws in the machine’slogic and game strategy. It was a good player, but to beat Jenningsand Rutter, who would be jousting for a million-dollartop prize, it would have to be great. So they had workedlong hours over the summer to revamp Watson. This Septemberevent was the coming-out party for Watson 2.0. It wasthe first of fifty-six test matches against a higher level of competitor:people, like Justin Bernbach, who had won enoughmatches to compete in Jeopardy ’s Tournament of Champions. In these early matches, Watson was having its way withthem. Ferrucci, monitoring the matches from a crowded observationbooth, was all smiles. Keen to promote its Jeopardyphenom, IBM’s advertising agency, Ogilvy & Mather, hadhired a film crew to follow Ferrucci’s team and capture thedrama of this opening round of championship matches. Theobservation room was packed with cameras. Microphones onlong booms recorded the back-and-forth of engineers as theydiscussed algorithms and Watson’s response time, known aslatency. Ferrucci, wearing a mike on his lapel, gave a blow-byblowcommentary 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 itsweaknesses. Even when functioning smoothly, it would makeits share of wacky mistakes. Right before the lunch break,one clue asked about “the inspiration for this title object ina novel and a 1957 movie [which] actually spanned the MaeKhlung.” Now, it would be reasonable for a computer to miss“The Bridge over the River Kwai,” especially since the actualriver has a different name. Perhaps Watson had trouble understandingthe sentence, which was convoluted at best. Buthow did the computer land on its outlandish response, “Whatis Kafka?” Ferrucci didn’t know. Those things happened, andWatson still won the two morning matches. It was after lunch that things deteriorated. Bernbach,so frustrated in the morning, started to beat Watson to thebuzzer. Meanwhile, the computer was making risky bets andflubbing entire categories of clues. Defeat, which had seemedso remote in the morning, was now just one lost bet away. Itcame in the fourth match. Watson was winning by $4,000when it stumbled on this Final Jeopardy clue: “On Feb. 8,2010, the headline in a major newspaper in this city read:‘Amen! After 43 years, our prayers are answered.’ ” Watsonmissed the reference to the previous day’s Super Bowl, won bythe New Orleans Saints. It bet $23,000 on Chicago. Bernbachalso botched the clue, guessing New York. But he bet less thanWatson, which made him the first person to defeat the revampedmachine. He pumped his fist. In the sixth and last match of the day, Watson trailed Bernbach,$16,200 to $21,000. The computer landed on a DailyDouble in the category Colleges and Universities, whichmeant it could bet everything it had on nailing the clue. A$5,000 bet would have brought it into a tie with Bernbach. Alarger bet, while risky, could have catapulted the computer towardvictory. “I’ll take five,” Watson said. Five. Not $5,000, not $500. Five measly dollars of funnymoney. The engineers in the observation booth were stunned.But they kept quieter than usual; the cameras were rolling. Then Watson crashed. It occurred at some point betweenplacing that lowly bet and attempting to answer a clue aboutthe first Catholic college in Washington, D.C. Watson’s “frontend,” its voice and avatar, was waiting for its thousands ofprocessors, or “back end,” to deliver an answer. It receivednothing. Anticipating such a situation, the engineers had preparedset phrases. “Sorry,” Watson said, reciting one of them,“I’m stumped.” Its avatar displayed a dark blue circle with asingle filament orbiting mournfully in the Antarctic latitudes. What to do? Everyone had ideas. Maybe they should finishthe game with an older version of Watson. Or perhapsthey could hook it up to another up-to-date version of theprogram at the company’s Hawthorne labs, six miles downthe road. But some worried that a remote connection wouldslow Watson’s response time, causing it to lose more often onthe buzz. In the end, as often happens with computers, a rebootbrought the hulking Jeopardy machine back to life. ButFerrucci and his team got an all-too-vivid reminder that theirJeopardy player, even as it prepared for a debut on nationaltelevision, could go haywire or shut down at any moment.When Watson was lifted to the podium, facing banks of camerasand lights, it was anybody’s guess how it would perform.Watson, it was clear, had a frighteningly broad repertoire.

Table of Contents


Introduction 1

1. The Germ of the Jeopardy Machine 19
2. And Representing the Humans 42
3. Blue J Is Born 62
4. Educating Blue J 81
5. Watson’s Face 104
6. Watson Takes On Humans 124
7. AI 148
8. A Season of Jitters 170
9. Watson Looks for Work 189
10. How to Play the Game 210
11. The Match 232

Acknowledgments 259
Notes 263
Sources and Further Reading 267
About the Author 269

Editorial 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