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Interview with Stephen Baker, Author of Final Jeopardy: Man vs. Machine and the Quest to Know Everything

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You might have already heard that in February, Jeopardy will be holding a tournament pitching two of its top past winners against a computer. If you would like to learn much more about this fascinating idea, Final Jeopardy: Man vs. Machine and the Quest to Know Everything, an ebook, is going on sale January 26, 2010, minus the final chapter.

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt has created a Cliffhanger eBook on the upcoming Jeopardy matchup. The final chapter, of course, will be about what transpires during the competition. Those who have already purchased the ebook will have the chapter delivered to them digitally on February 17. At that point, a complete version of the book will also be available for sale both in ebook and physical form.

I spoke with the author, Stephen Baker, about the Jeopardy tournament and the book. I learned a great deal more about the epic competition that will take place Febrauary 14-16, 2010 between Watson the computer and its two opponents, Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter.

Who had the idea for the man vs. machine Jeopardy competition?

It was IBM. They have a history of creating challenges for recognition. They were behind the famous computer chess match and donated a supercomputer for genome sequencing. IBM wanted to do something now involving language and knowledge.

How did the idea for the book come about?

I was working at Business Week and had already written a book, The Numerati. Business Week was on the brink of collapse and I was looking to write another book, preferably one where I could see something through from beginning to end. I was covering IBM when I heard about the project and thought it would make a great book.

How will Watson actually buzz in?

That was actually a point of controversy. IBM had only built a brain for Watson, but not a body. Jeopardy said it was unfair for Watson to be able to answer without having to buzz in first, so IBM created a hand for buzzing in. It is a little quicker than a human hand, yet it can’t anticipate the timing, so it mostly evens out.

Could you tell us a little more about Brad Rutter since audiences may not be as familiar with him as they are with Ken Jennings?

Brad Rutter played 16 Jeopardy games and never lost. He was part of the Ultimate Tournament of Champions with Ken Jennings and Rutter blew him away.

Are there any technical problems that might occur with Watson?

He could crash. The bigger problem is if half the system isn’t in gear and he is working but is really off. However, since the show is being taped in advance it shouldn’t be a major problem.

Will Watson know how to bet during Daily Doubles and Final Jeopardy?
Scientists have taught Watson betting strategies. It was one of the easier things to teach him. This is actually his strong suit.

If you are still chomping at the bit for more information and can’t even wait for Final Jeopardy: Man vs. Machine and the Quest to Know Everything to come out, visit Stephen Baker’s blog for some more insight into Watson, the IBM, Jeopardy playing computer.

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