Thursday, January 27, 2011

Julia Reviews "Final Jeopardy" by Stephen Baker

Title/Author: Final Jeopardy: Man vs. Machine and the Quest to Know Everything by Stephen Baker
Publisher/Year Published:2011 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
How I got this book: I got this as an eBook from netGalley
Why I read this book: I love three things. Reading, Jeopardy and computers. This book is the love child of those things
Rating: 4.5 stars

I love Jeopardy. I have no idea why, but lately I have just been so into the show that I have the DVR set to auto-record. When I heard that there was going to be a match between a computer and the two famous Jeopardy winners, Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter, I was instantly excited. But this excitement led to some questions. How was it built? Is Watson just hooked up to a search engine or were their complex algorithms involved? But even before that, how would you teach the computer enough about the English language to be able to perform a search let alone play Jeopardy?

Then I found this book.

Final Jeopardy not only holds the answers to my above questions, but really delves into the man vs. machine thought. How do we as humans learn a language? How do we measure perception? And then once we know all of this, how do we teach it to a machine? If you are even the slightest bit interested in artificial intelligence this book is for you. At the same time, it is not so down in the computery depths that someone who knows little of data-mining algorithms won't be able to understand. I think it is a very accessible book.

If you think about it, it is quite a lot to teach a computer to understand English. I remember one example from a pre-Watson project that the book points out. The question was "What was Fracis Scott Key best known for?" A computer could recognize Francis and Scott as names but Key may be a noun. "In its hunt, the computer might even spend a millisecond or two puzzling over Key lime Pies." Then, Baker points out, there isn't even a verb in the question so even if the computer went to the Wikipedia page of Francis Scott Key it could guess that he was "best known" for being an American lawyer!

But that was the beginning. This book is seriously an awesome journey into the depths of computer human interaction, as well as delving into the puzzling quirks of language. Why did it lose a half star? There were points that dragged a bit longer than I wanted, but not too badly. The way I am thinking, the things that I thought were too long were probably the part someone else really was looking forward to and vice versa.

But I still have more book left. A partial eBook was released the 26th which does not include the last chapter called "The Match." They are holding this chapter until after the match airs from the 14th through the 16th. If you buy the partial eBook, the final chapter will arrive as an update after the match on the 16th.

I am highly interested in computers and language, but I think if you are even remotely interested in the evolution of technology (the technology of the Future, if you will), give this book a try. I am excited to have read it in preparation for the match, because now I get to be the know it all who gets to say "You know how they made that right? It's not just a search engine"

A partial eBook is available now. It holds off the final chapter (which talks about the outcome of the match, which airs February 14 - 16). If you buy the partial eBook, the final chapter will arrive as an update after the match on the 16th. The hardback book will be out in stores the 17th.


  1. This looks BEYOND fascinating!! Oh my goodness. I might have to pick this one up. I think my stepdad would really enjoy it as well.

  2. What an interesting read! I'm definitely intrigued!

  3. Thanks so much for sharing this! I have recently signed up for the online Jeopardy tryouts next month. I tried out once before - in person in 2005 - and made it "all the way" to be part of their contestant pool, but they never called :-(

    I have been thinking a lot about the man vs machine thing lately (after reading Vonnegut's Player Piano), and also wrote a post about this upcoming Jeopardy event at:


  4. Julia -
    I'd never heard of this book (and I'm all over shelfawareness and all sorts of sites looking for fascinating stuff), so I'm uber-grateful you've brought it to my attention: Thank You!
    Off to the library and thence the used bookstores...

  5. I'm very lucky to get this information I have a great time reading it. Thank you for sharing.


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