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


“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 ...

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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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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"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

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780547747194
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • Publication date: 3/27/2012
  • Pages: 288
  • Sales rank: 972,856
  • Product dimensions: 5.20 (w) x 7.90 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

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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Read an Excerpt


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 patch?”
 “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 didn’t know. Those things happened, and
Watson still won the two morning matches.
 It was after lunch that things deteriorated. Bernbach,
so frustrated in the morning, started to beat Watson to the buzzer. Meanwhile, the computer was making risky bets and flubbing entire categories of clues. Defeat, which had seemed so remote in the morning, was now just one lost bet away. It came in the fourth match. Watson was winning by $4,000
when 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.’ ” Watson missed the reference to the previous day’s Super Bowl, won by the New Orleans Saints. It bet $23,000 on Chicago. Bernbach also botched the clue, guessing New York. But he bet less than
Watson, which made him the first person to defeat the revamped machine. 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 Daily
Double in the category Colleges and Universities, which meant it could bet everything it had on nailing the clue. A
$5,000 bet would have brought it into a tie with Bernbach. A
larger bet, while risky, could have catapulted the computer toward victory. “I’ll take five,” Watson said.
 Five. Not $5,000, not $500. Five measly dollars of funny money. 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 between placing that lowly bet and attempting to answer a clue about the first Catholic college in Washington, D.C. Watson’s “front end,” its voice and avatar, was waiting for its thousands of processors, or “back end,” to deliver an answer. It received nothing. Anticipating such a situation, the engineers had prepared set phrases. “Sorry,” Watson said, reciting one of them,
“I’m stumped.” Its avatar displayed a dark blue circle with a single filament orbiting mournfully in the Antarctic latitudes.
 What to do? Everyone had ideas. Maybe they should finish the game with an older version of Watson. Or perhaps they could hook it up to another up-to-date version of the program at the company’s Hawthorne labs, six miles down the road. But some worried that a remote connection would slow Watson’s response time, causing it to lose more often on the buzz. In the end, as often happens with computers, a reboot brought the hulking Jeopardy machine back to life. But
Ferrucci and his team got an all-too-vivid reminder that their
Jeopardy player, even as it prepared for a debut on national television, could go haywire or shut down at any moment.
When Watson was lifted to the podium, facing banks of cameras and lights, it was anybody’s guess how it would perform.
Watson, it was clear, had a frighteningly broad repertoire.

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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

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Sort by: Showing all of 8 Customer Reviews
  • Posted February 27, 2011

    more from this reviewer

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

    A book review by Sheila English The Future is Here! And it just won on Jeopardy! It was so exciting to watch IBM's Watson playing against two of the greatest Jeopardy players of all time and I couldn't wait to devour this book! Author Stephen Baker was invited to the IBM lab to watch the evolution of the creation of Watson and watch as the brilliant scientists there prepared the amazing computer to do something I never thought I would see in my lifetime, play on the popular game show Jeopardy! The book's narrative is easy to follow for us non-scientific types and full of enthusiasm and excitement that mirrored and even inspired my own. The book addresses the questions that I'm sure we all have on our minds like how might this affect society, jobs, etc. But it also included things I would never have considered like how it might affect education. A book about computers that's actually exciting to read to the point I wish I could give a copy to all my friends! Who would have ever thought that possible? Maybe those smart guys over at IBM? LOL Kudos to the author for such a fun and informative book!

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 18, 2011

    Barnes and Noble lowered the price!

    Good job B&N, price dropped from $14 to $10. I just bought it.

    0 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 17, 2011

    Confusing purchasing model

    I purchased this last week to read ahead of watching the TV episodes, and was notified I'd be able to get the last chapter 2/17 (today). I can't figure out how to do it for the life of me from my Nook Color, so I come here...and surprise surprise, it's $4.50 cheaper today. AND I still can't figure out how to get the last chapter.

    0 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 13, 2011


    The building and teaching of Watson is an amazing adventure. I can't wait to see the games and read the final chapter.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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