Stephen Baker

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The secret Jeopardy match: One year ago, Watson won

January 13, 2012Jeopardy book

Last winter it snowed every week. And I remember tossing and turning in bed, worrying whether a storm might cause me to me the match between IBM's Jeopardy machine, Watson, and its human foes, Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter. If I missed the match, which took place a year ago this week, my book project would be highly compromised.

I was full of worries. There was the very real concern that Jeopardy executives, fearful that the results of the match might leak before it came out on TV a month later, would block me out. That possibility, it turned out, was very real, IBM sources told me later. Big Blue had to lean on Jeopardy to get me a seat at the performance, held at IBM Research in Yorktown Heights, NY. If it had been held at the Jeopardy studio, in Culver City, Calif., as originally plan, I have little doubt that I would have been blocked. As far as the Jeopardy team was concerned, I represented risk.

If I missed the show, the book would have been a mess. I had written 9/10 of Final Jeopardy, and it had gone through the editing process. But the last chapter hinged on the match. It was to take place on a Friday. I was to write the last chapter over the following two days and submit a draft on Monday. That would be edited and added to the book. A couple of weeks later, the public would be able to buy the partial ebook--everything except for the last chapter--online, and then would be sent the last chapter when the physical book came out, the day after the televised match. It was tight scheduling. For it to work, I had to get into the show.

My other fear was that Watson would lose. The machine lost about 30% of its matches against tournament of champion competitors in its last series of sparring matches. I had seen its vulnerabilities. Despite its strengths, entire categories could confound Watson. What's more, Jennings and Rutter were the best players on earth. Following the match, I've read lots of opinions on social media that IBM had fixed the match, and wouldn't have played it if there was a chance that Watson could lose. This is not true. And if Watson lost, my book would be the story of a machine that failed. Hardly a selling point.

I drove up to Yorktown from my home in NJ and didn't relax until I had gotten through security and was inside IBM Research. By that point, I figured that even if Jeopardy kept me out of the studio, I could watch on TV monitors in the overflow room. I wasn't particular. But I was concerned about capturing the data. I had a digital recorder, and for backup, I'd downloaded a recording app on my iPad. I would have to recreate the match, with the precise clues and scoring at each juncture, from the audio.

Much of the rest of that day I included in the final chapter: A wound up David Ferrucci, Watson's chief developer, crying as the make-up woman worked on his face; IBM CEO Sam Palmisano, as Watson steamrolled the humans, telling one of the researchers, "Maybe we should have toned it down a notch:" Jeopardy host Alex Trebek gamely entertaining the restive crowd with his stand-up routine during the seemingly endless technical glitches; an exhausted Jennings and Rutter, standing in a lonely hallway, waiting to do more video interviews after losing the marathon match, this while the happy IBM crowd was upstairs drinking cocktails and toasting the victor. Here are Jennings' memories.

As I drove home 52 weeks ago, I leaned out of the window and took one last picture of IBM Research on a winter night.


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