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

by Stephen Baker

The thrilling history and behind-the-scenes story of Watson, the computer created by IBM scientists to take on two masters of Jeopardy!, Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter, in a fast-paced look at how smart machines will change our world.

  • Format: Paperback
  • ISBN-13/ EAN: 9780547747194
  • ISBN-10: 0547747195
  • Pages: 288
  • Publication Date: 03/27/2012
  • Carton Quantity: 24

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About the Book
About the Author
  • About the Book

    “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

  • About the Author
  • 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...

  • 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