Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
February 17, 2011
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 the 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 Ferruccci’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 it.
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, the 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.net.