|A Q & A With Author Stephen Baker
Q: What did you come to most admire about the researchers working to develop Watson?
I found myself admiring their meticulous engineering. I’ve always
enjoyed stories of great engineering, from the building of the Panama
Canal to the rescue of Apollo 13. The work on Watson fits into that
genre. It involves continual problem-solving, innovations, incremental
improvements, and above all, endless patience. To do this work, the
Jeopardy team had to break down the way we think, the way we understand
sentences and concepts and facts, into tiny components, and then teach
them to Watson.
I have to say, I came out of this process with
an ever greater appreciation for the magic that takes place between our
ears. We don’t give ourselves enough credit. Seriously. They had to
build a roaring complex of computers and supply it with enough
electricity to light up an entire town, all this just to approximate the
question-answering part of the organ we carry in our heads. Unlike
Watson, our thinking machines can run for hours on just a cup of coffee
and a donut.
Q: What was most surprising to you about Watson’s behavior?
Two things: First, its speed. When researchers describe all of the work
it takes for a machine to make sense of a question and hunt down
possible answers, it makes perfect sense that the process would take a
computer two hours. And in the beginning, it did. The fact that they
engineered that two-hour process into a mere three seconds is
The second surprise was that Watson could be so
amazingly smart on one question, then laughably clueless on the next.
How could it ever conclude that the Russian word for good-bye would be
"cholesterol"? How could it confuse Oliver Twist with the Pet Shop Boys?
But you know what? I found that when I watched Watson screw up, I had
even greater appreciation for the work involved when it got things
right. If it got everything right, Watson wouldn’t be the fallible (and
entertaining) machine that it is. It would just be magic--which really
is not nearly as impressive.
Q: So who is in charge of picking the clues for the final match? Do you think the arrangements for the match are fair?
In the end, Jeopardy chose 30 games that the writers had prepared for
the Jeopardy season that began in the summer of 2010—before they knew
for sure that a man-machine match would take place. Each of the games
was given a number. Then they had an outside compliance company select
two of the games by number. I think they’ve made the game as fair as
I should add that Watson’s scientific test comes
from a bigger set of matches. The machine took on human champions in 56
matches in the fall of 2010. It won a majority of those matches. And for
the field of question-answering, those games mean more than the
televised showdown, simply because there are more of them.
Q: Should people who don’t watch Jeopardy care about this story? If so, why?
Jeopardy is just a showcase for a new type of machine. Look, we’re
going to be living with these things, working with them, and using them
as external lobes of our brains. Final Jeopardy follows the education of
one such machine. Readers, I’m hoping, will get a feel for its
potential as well as its limitations. And that will help them understand
what skills and knowledge they’ll need to carry around in their own
heads. Of course, I’m also hoping they’ll enjoy the story.
Q: Doesn’t Google already answer all our questions? What makes Watson so special?
Google is so useful that we sometimes forget how much more it could
tell us. First, it doesn’t answer questions. It usually just points in
the direction of the information we’re looking for and leaves the rest
of the brain work to us. Watson, by contrast, puts together pieces of
information from different sources and comes up with answers or
hypotheses. A simple example. Let’s say you want to buy a dog for your
aging parents. It has to be small, quiet, well-behaved, able to tolerate
long periods indoors, and friendly enough to sit on a lap. A hunt for
such a dog on a search engine would require lots of different searches
(unless someone had happened to write an article about precisely that
challenge). But a machine like Watson would understand the sentence in
English, read through several thousand documents, and put together a
list of candidate dogs. It acts much more like a knowledgeable person.
Q: Did Watson become more or less "human-like" to you over the course of the project?
It’s funny. When it’s playing Jeopardy, I find myself referring to it
as “him .” But when you hang around with the researchers, the human
evaporates and Watson returns to its truer form, that of an enormously
sophisticated computer program. Sometimes it’s tempting to think of
Watson as a “brain.” But as you deal with it, you see that it’s not even
close to a full brain. It just handles information retrieval and
question-answering. In short, it’s a tool.
Q: How does the rest of the computing world see Watson? Is this the true path to Artificial Intelligence?
Many folks in AI resent Watson, some of them to the point of loathing.
You see, there’s this dream of building machines that blend the
intelligence of humans with the data-processing wizardry of computers.
For people who hold that vision—and many still do—Watson is almost a
false prophet. In the realm of Jeopardy, it acts like a human. But
instead of processing information the way we do, it just crunches
numbers. It doesn’t really know or understand anything, or come up with
ideas. Yet it works—and it gets to parade its smarts on national TV! If
we as a society settle for machines like Watson, will we continue to
fund the ambitious research that seeks to replicate the magic of the
human brain? For many, that’s the true path to AI. But as far as I’m
concerned, there doesn’t have to be just one path.
Q:How did IBM decide what to name Watson and who created its public image?
was lots of debate within IBM about Watson’s name and image. How human
should it be? Many worried that the public would view Watson as scary: a
machine that learns our secrets and steals our jobs. So they decided to
limit Watson’s human qualities. They would give its friendly, masculine
voice a machine-like overtone. And its face, if you could call it that,
would simply be a circular avatar—no eyes, nose or mouth, just
streaming patterns representing flowing data. Despite these choices,
I’ve noticed that fellow Jeopardy players immediately start to respond
to Watson as another human—and not necessarily a friendly one. It’s
playing the game, after all. And it usually beats them.
far as the name, IBM entertained loads of possibilities. They considered
THINQ, Ace, even EureQA, a blend of Eureka with QA, for question
answering. In the end, they picked Watson, for IBM’s founder, Thomas J.
Watson. In the literary world, it also fit into the stories of Sherlock
Holmes, a master question-answerer. Of course, in those stories, Watson
was only the assistant to the true genius. But considering the
widespread fears surrounding smart computers, maybe it made sense to
name the question-answering machine after Holmes’ plodding number two.
Q:If Watson-like systems do become ubiquitous, what will that mean for humans?
no question about it. Machines like Watson are going to become part of
our lives. They’ll be manning call centers, answering questions in
offices, factories and emergency rooms. And they’ll be available to all
of us through our smart phones, often answering spoken questions. This
intelligence will become, de facto, part of the human brain. Each one of
us will have to figure out how to leverage these smart systems for our
own good—and not be replaced by them. Our brains are still the most
intricate, complex and brilliant thinking machines on earth. But we have
to figure out how to use them in concert with the machinery we’re