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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 twopart 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.

Published March 11, 2011




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