You saw Watson the computer humiliate humans on Jeopardy!, and now you can read what is effectively a tie-in book. Baker (The Numerati) tells the story of why and how Watson was created, and the long process that went into getting the talking bucket of bolts ready for its game show appearance. We see the technicians at IBM, led by Watson creator David Ferrucci, trying to prepare Watson for every Jeopardy! contingency, suffering through failures on the way to the eventual success: at one point, Watson suffers a classic meltdown right out of an episode of Star Trek: “it developed a small speech defect” and started delivering answers like, “What is Pakistand?”
Of course, IBM always has its ultimate goal in mind, taking down the world’s smartest human, Jeopardy! champ Ken Jennings. We learn that they actually had a “Jennings arc,” based on data about Jennings’s quiz show achievements, that formed the basis of their goals for Watson.
It may seem odd at first glance that IBM put so much time and so many resources into getting a computer ready for a syndicated game show. But as Baker explains, there was a larger purpose in mind. Proving that a computer can be as nimble as humans in figuring out things like, “two of Jesus’s disciples whose names are both top 10 baby male names and end in the same letter,” and even faster when it came to buzzing in, points the way to the type of artificial intelligence scientists have been unable to create in the past. In rolling out a computer with “advanced powers of pattern recognition” and a familiarity with the English language, computer geeks may finally be able to create machines that can take all the jobs humans are still able to do. In the end, though, Baker tells us to cheer up, because these job-taking computers will leave us more time to do things “from singing and swimming to falling in love.” Until Ferrucci builds Watson II to take that away from us.