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Book Review: Final Jeopardy: Man vs. Machine and the Quest to Know Everything by Stephen Baker

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It is finally time for IBM’s Watson to face off against Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter on Jeopardy in a man vs. machine showdown airing February 14-16, 2011. If you would like to read the utterly absorbing and fascinating behind-the-scenes story, then I highly recommend Stephen Baker’s new book Final Jeopardy: Man vs. Machine and the Quest to Know Everything.

The previous IBM challenge, when Deep Blue bested chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov, was nothing compared to this. Jeopardy is a unique game that requires much more than a knowledge of facts. Final Jeopardy contains many hilarious stories of some of Watson’s absurd answers due to misunderstanding the Jeopardy answers.

Final Jeopardy takes the reader on the entire journey, from when IBM came up with the idea to build a computer for a Jeopardy challenge, until the game is played. Readers will learn:

1. How IBM came up with the idea for a Jeopardy challenge and what it saw as the biggest challenges and risks.

2. The history of Jeopardy, its producer and contestants and how the game show wound up with its unique answer/question style.

3. The creation and education of the Watson computer (originally called Blue J). The education was constant throughout as the team, led by David Ferucci, learned Watson’s faults through mock games.

4. The decisions of how to represent Watson on stage (giving Watson a face) and how it would buzz in (giving Watson a hand).

5. Artificial Intelligence research and how Watson’s team dealt with difficult categories of clues.

6. How the show almost was called off. Originally Watson was slated to be part of the tournament of champions but so many problems came up that the only way to have a Watson on Jeoparday was to do a separate tournament.

7. What else can Watson do? It would be a waste if Watson was only used for a game show. After this, what can Watson, and its prototypes, do in the real world? Many interesting examples are discussed.

Now that I’ve read Final Jeopardy, I couldn’t imagine watching the tournament without knowing the back story. This book is a must read for fans of Jeopardy or any background in computers. However I recommend it to anyone tha watches the tournament.

For more information, read this interview with the author of Final Jeopardy, Stephen Baker. On February 17, 2011, the full book goes on sale. Until then, you can purchase the Kindle version of Final Jeopardy: Man vs. Machine and the Quest to Know Everything minus the final chapter “The Game.” Then, on the 17th, the final chapter will be sent to you to download.

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