Julie's Reviews > Final Jeopardy: Man vs. Machine and the Quest to Know Everything

Final Jeopardy by Stephen  Baker
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Apr 25, 11

bookshelves: non-fiction-general
Read in April, 2011

A few months ago, I watched the first man-machine Jeopardy match, between Ken Jennings, Brad Rutter, and IBM's brainchild Watson. So when I discovered this book by Stephen Baker at my library, purporting to describe the development of Watson from idea to reality, I figured I'd pick it up and see how Watson came to beat two of the greatest Jeopardy champions ever.

Baker charts Watson from mere suggestion -- back around 2006 -- to the final version that played on the show. The perspective is mostly that of David Ferrucci and his team at IBM, the group that turned Watson from the long-shot idea that could never work into reality. Through it all, he charts the tension, frustration, excitement, and inspiration as the project progressed. For a book all about a machine, Baker lends the narrative a very human feel. While Final Jeopardy is about Watson, it's equally about the people who brought him to "life."

Final Jeopardy is also about the larger questions surrounding Watson: what's the current state of artificial intelligence and question-answering programs, and where can we expect it to lead over the next decade or two? Watson can answer natural-language questions (even tricky syntactical ones like Jeopardy clues), but even Ferrucci will claim that the machine is stupid. It doesn't know what its responses mean, not like a human being would know. It doesn't generate ideas or create connections. Some computer scientists believe that this is the correct course to pursue in AI, while others argue that we should be striving towards a more human-like intelligence for our machines.

The ultimate question, of course, is what do we do with Watson now that its Jeopardy match is over. What will IBM use this technology for, and will others (like Google) supplant it from an entirely different direction? Obviously, the ability to survey vast streams of natural language and come up with plausible answers could be a windfall in many professions: medicine, law, science, and all fields where knowing expands more quickly than any one person can keep track of. But whether question-answer programs like Watson creep into our lives in the near future remains to be seen.

I'll admit that this book isn't for everyone. It's well-written and Baker ensures that even difficult concepts are easy to understand. But if you're not interested in AI or the Watson computer, you're probably not going to get any thrills from Final Jeopardy. That said, if AI and the future of computing do interest you, I recommend it.
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