Book excerpt: Educating Watson - Stephen Baker
FEBRUARY 2011 • Stephen Baker
In 2007, IBM computer scientist David Ferrucci and his team embarked on the challenge of building a computer that could take on—and beat—the two best players of the popular US TV quiz show Jeopardy!, a trivia game in which contestants are given clues in categories ranging from academic subjects to pop culture and must ring in with responses that are in the form of questions. The show, a ratings stalwart, was created in 1964 and has aired for more than 25 years. But this would be the first time the program would pit man against machine.
In some sense, the project was a follow-up to Deep Blue, the IBM computer that defeated chess champion Garry Kasparov in 1997. Although a TV quiz show may seem to lack the gravitas of the classic game of chess, the task was in many ways much harder. It wasn’t just that the computer had to master straightforward language, it had to master humor, nuance, puns, allusions, and slang—a verbal complexity well beyond the reach of most computer processors. Meeting that challenge was about much more than just a Jeopardy! championship. The work of Ferrucci and his team illuminates both the great potential and the severe limitations of current computer intelligence—as well as the capacities of the human mind. Although the machine they created was ultimately dubbed “Watson” (in honor of IBM’s founder, Thomas J. Watson), to the team that painstakingly constructed it, the game-playing computer was known as Blue J.
The following article is adapted from Final Jeopardy: Man vs. Machine and the Quest to Know Everything (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, February 2011), by Stephen Baker, an account of Blue J’s creation.
It was possible, Ferrucci thought, that someday a machine would replicate the complexity and nuance of the human mind. In fact, in IBM’s Almaden Research Center, on a hilltop high above Silicon Valley, a scientist named Dharmendra Modha was building a simulated brain equipped with 700 million electronic neurons. Within years, he hoped to map the brain of a cat, and then a monkey, and, eventually, a human. But mapping the human brain, with its 100 billion neurons and trillions or quadrillions of connections among them, was a long-term project. With time, it might result in a bold new architecture for computing, one that could lead to a new level of computer intelligence. Perhaps then, machines would come up with their own ideas, wrestle with concepts, appreciate irony, and think more like humans.
But such machines, if they ever came, would not be ready on Ferrucci’s schedule. As he saw it, his team had to produce a functional Jeopardy!-playing machine in just two years. If Jeopardy!’s executive producer, Harry Friedman, didn’t see a viable machine by 2009, he would never green-light the man–machine match for late 2010 or early 2011.