Two Men Vs. Machine: Stephen Baker on Watson, IBM, and Jeopardy!

Earlier this week, I outlined my haphazard preparation for what turned out to be nine bewilderingly fun games of Jeopardy! (well, the ninth was less fun). Really, what my preparation amounted to was forty years of turning my omnivore's flypaper outward toward the world, and then spending a couple of weekends cramming in whatever extra facts I thought might be most worth having stuck somewhere in my head. Meanwhile, another Jeopardy! contestant was nearing the end of his its training period: roughly four years of ingesting reams of information, constructing guessing and wagering strategies, and playing thousands of practice rounds, many of them against former Jeopardy! champions, with the backing of a team of dozens of engineers, not to mention 16 terabytes of state-of-the-art hardware.

That contestant is, of course, Watson, the machine built by IBM to win the next generation in a line of John Henry-style challenges, this time battling all-time Jeopardy! champs Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter in a three-day match set to air Feb. 14-16. (One hopes that neither Jennings nor Rutter will "die with a buzzer in his hand, lord, lord.") Stephen Baker, a former technology reporter at BusinessWeek and the author of The Numerati, a well-received book on the brave new world of data mining, got an inside seat for the development of Watson, and he was at the taping of Watson's shows last month. His account of the machine and the match, Final Jeopardy, will be released the day after the shows air (a Kindle ebook is already available, which readers can update for free with the final chapter--about the match--beginning on the 17th).

Of course, I've had Jeopardy! on the brain lately, and I was very eager to read Final Jeopardy and talk to Baker, and he was happy to talk too, although even off the record he declined to divulge anything about the results of the big match. The book is a fascinating glimpse into a high-profile technological sprint, and, for those of us who care, an equally interesting look at how to prepare for the game, if you are made of silicon rather than carbon (although carbon-based forms could likely learn a thing or two from the machine). I came away equally impressed by the brainpower and determination that went into building a machine that can play this very human game as well as any human can, and by the remarkable machines we already have in our damp heads, which can still (for a few months yet at least) hold their own against this closet-sized, parallel-processing juggernaut.

You can get a glimpse of how human Watson seems (especially when Jennings starts beating it to the buzzer, and most especially when it says, "Let's finish 'Chicks Dig Me'") in this advance clip of a practice game, and tonight, PBS's Nova has an hour-long documentary on Watson. And for my conversation with Baker about Final Jeopardy, you can listen to the two-part audio below, or read the transcript after the jump.




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