Brain Pickings

Final Jeopardy: Man vs. Machine & the Quest to Know Everything


What the perceived masculinity of robots has to do with the future of human knowledge.

Earlier this month, we looked at the superhuman capacities of the human brain, from the quest to hack memory and remember everything to the extraordinary mind of an autistic savant. For the past four years, IBM scientists have been putting their own very human minds together to build the ultimate superhuman artificial intelligence: A supercomputer known as Watson. In an ultimate litmus test for Watson’s computational cognition, they set out to prep and pit it against the world’s best players in a round of Jeopardy. And they granted one man rare access to document it all: Journalist Stephen Baker.

In Final Jeopardy: Man vs. Machine and the Quest to Know Everything, he captures the fascinating process of trying to teach a machine language, knowledge and common sense, wrapped in a narrative that reads part like a sports story, with its riveting championship ups and downs, and part like the living incarnation of yesteryear’s science fiction, but is at its heart about the passion for and future of human knowledge.

Jeopardy is just a showcase for a new type of machine. Look, we’re going to be living with these things, working with them, and using them as external lobes of our brains. Final Jeopardy follows the education of one such machine. Readers, I’m hoping, will get a feel for its potential as well as its limitations. And that will help them understand what skills and knowledge they’ll need to carry around in their own heads. Of course, I’m also hoping they’ll enjoy the story.” ~ Stephen Baker

Watson and Google are very different animals. Google uses your brain to help you find an answer. It asks you for really, really clear instructions that a computer can understand, and then it leads you to a webpage and leaves it up to you to find the answer. Watson, on the other hand, has to make sense of the English itself, the really complex English of a Jeopardy clue. Then it has to hunt, find an answer, and determine if it has confidence that it’s the right answer or not, and whether it has enough confidence to bet on it. It’s a much more sophisticated process.” ~ Stephen Baker

Amazon has a revealing Q&A with the author and Omnivoracious has an excellent two-part podcast, where Baker talks about the fascinating ins-and-outs of this monumental quest.

There was lots of debate within IBM about Watson’s name and image. How human should it be? Many worried that the public would view Watson as scary: a machine that learns our secrets and steals our jobs. So they decided to limit Watson’s human qualities. They would give its friendly, masculine avoice a machine-like overtone. And its face, if you could call it that, would simply be a circular avatar—no eyes, nose or mouth, just streaming patterns representing flowing data. Despite these choices, I’ve noticed that fellow Jeopardy players immediately start to respond to Watson as another human — and not necessarily a friendly one. It’s playing the game, after all. And it usually beats them.” ~ Stephen Baker

Absorbing, dynamic and just the right amount of uncomfortable, Final Jeopardy is as much a rigorously researched lens for the process of sicence and technology as it is a subtle yet palpable moral and philosophical inquiry into the future of humanity.

Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter and people say it’s cool. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s an example. Like? Sign up.

What Pi Sounds Like


We love the intersection of math and creativity. And we have a soft spot for unusual ways to create music. (Previously, we’ve seen that anything from produce to the HIV virus to your apartment can make music.) Earlier this week, we explored extraordinary mind of autistic savant Daniel Tammet, whose synesthesia allows him to experience numbers in color, sound and texture. But what if one could use ordinary tools to translate one source of cognitive input into an entirely different sensory experience?

That’s exactly what Michael John Blake did in his musical interpretation of the number Pi, translating each of the first 31 decimals into a note and performing the piece on varioius instruments to a tempo of 157 beats per minute. Priceless.

via Coudal

Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter and people say it’s cool. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

The Late American Novel: Writers on the Future of Books


Telling the fortune of tales to come, or what has to do with writing.

Whither the written word? Many meditations on this question, our own included, have appeared on substrate, online, and in streaming newsfeeds of late. We found the most entertaining answers in a new collection called The Late American Novel: Writers on the Future of Books.

Just released this month, The Late American Novel was edited by Jeff Martin and C. Max Magee, writers and, in the case of the latter, founder of one of our favorite sites, The Millions. Martin and Magee have assembled an all-star team of literary visionaries including authors Rivka Galchen, Benjamin Kunkel, and Reif Larsen, and the results are at turns funny, poignant, and searching, but always provocative.

Galchen’s piece “The Future of Paper” opens the anthology with this LOL-worthy, tongue-in-cheek fable:

In Brooklyn, a paper-making collective was formed. A neglected commercial space for the collective was renovated with great flair and through the sweat of women with really cute bangs. However, the original Save Paper mission became overshadowed by the collective’s far more successful sideline of selling homemade organic yogurt and handmade patches created by prisoners whose only thread was harvested from striped gym socks.”

The joy of compilations lies in their contributors’ differing approaches and viewpoints, much in evidence here. Kunkel takes the historical perspective in his essay, creating a narrative of modern culture that moves from the “logosphere” to the “graphosphere” to our current context, which he dubs the “digitosphere.” Larsen, in his Pynchonian piece “The Crying of Lot 45,” uses illustrated marginalia to highly entertaining ends.

Writers especially will find inspiration among the book’s essays, as in Lauren Groff’s “Modes of Imagining the Writer of the Future”:

He is the one drawing word after word, pushing his sentences outward, into the darkness, into the thrilling unknown. He’s not going to put it off for tomorrow, and he’s not content with yesterday’s work. He is the one alone somewhere, writing, right now. And right now. And right now.”

As with Groff’s piece, our favorites among the bunch were those that ended with a reveille, rallying cries to creators in all places and of all media to get out there and do. In the words of writer Ander Monson:

Are we going to have to find new ways to get noticed? Yes. Do we get to find news ways to get noticed? Yes. Is it trouble? Yes. But trouble is the stuff of writing and creation. Time to shut up and get to the making, get back to that sense of play where everything interesting, including the future, finally fast and soon to be here, starts.”

The Late American Novel came out last week and may just be the most compelling collage-vision for the futue of publishing yet.

Kirstin Butler is writing an adaptation of Gogol for the Google era called Dead SULs, but when not working spends far, far too much time on Twitter. She currently lives in Cambridge, MA.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:

You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:

Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

Lost Roll of Film Finds Its Way Home, Virally


On lost film, found friendships and the stories we all want to believe could be true.

In January, a man named Todd Bieber made waves with his story of finding a lost roll of film while skiing in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park and his quest to find the strangers to whom it belonged. The original video, seemingly engineered for it, went predictably viral:

This week, six weeks after his quest began, Bieber has miraculously found the film owners — lifted by its viral wings, the video apparently made its way to them. In Paris.

Turns out the real photographer was never the two men in the pictures at all. It was their sister — a quiet young student, who was visiting the states, which is the European word for America. Camille’s ex-roommate in New York recognized that several of the shots were taken right outside their apartment, so she sent Camille my video.” ~ Todd Bieber

Admittedly, somewhere between Bieber’s day job as writer and director for the Upright Citizens Brigade, the forced hesitation of his voiceover tone, the all-too-hipster choice of analog film, and the Seinfeld-loving German hostess, we had to wonder whether the whole thing is a hoax. But a big part of us wants to believe it isn’t. And whatever the case, it’s still a beautifully told story of what we all secretly wish to believe: That human kindness makes the world go around, and that we’re all connected in more ways than we could possibly imagine.

Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter and people say it’s cool. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s an example. Like? Sign up.