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Originally published February 6, 2011 at 7:02 PM | Page modified February 7, 2011 at 12:36 PM

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Lit Life

IBM computer squares off against 'Jeopardy!' champs

An IBM computer takes on top "Jeopardy!" champs Feb. 14-16, including Seattle's Ken Jennings. Learn more about the matchup through the book "Final Jeopardy: Man vs. Machine and the Quest to Know Everything" and a NOVA documentary "The Smartest Machine on Earth."

Seattle Times book editor


'The Smartest Machine on Earth'

A NOVA special presentation, 10 p.m. Wednesday on KCTS.

Why would IBM, one of the world's information powerhouses, spend four years building a computer whose sole mission is to win a television game show? A NOVA documentary airing Wednesday and a new book, "Final Jeopardy: Man vs. Machine and the Quest to Know Everything" (Houghton Mifflin, $24) both explore IBM's quest, which goes to the core of how both humans and computers "think."

The television show is "Jeopardy!," described in the NOVA program as "pop culture's IQ test." The computer is Watson, named after IBM's founder, the repository of 10 million documents (no Internet surfing allowed on "Jeopardy!") and the object of its programmers' arduous attempts to get it to think like a human, including developing a knack for the right bet. The human contestants: longtime "Jeopardy!" champions Brad Rutter and Ken Jennings, the Seattle-area resident whose 74-game winning streak in 2004-05 was the longest in the show's history.

Both the documentary and the book, by technology writer Stephen Baker, advance a man-vs.-machine match that will air Feb. 14, 15 and 16 (7:30 p.m., KOMO-TV) on "Jeopardy!" The prize is $1 million (if he prevails, Jennings has promised to donate his winnings to local charity Village Reach). The NOVA show and Baker's book cover the same material, though the book is the place to go if you're really interested in this version of the quest for creating Artificial Intelligence (AI).

The NOVA documentary begins with early footage of attempts to develop AI in the 1950s and '60s (think clunky robots). Those projects showed promise, but eventually they stalled out.

The AI concept got a boost with the 1968 Stanley Kubrick film "2001: A Space Odyssey." Several AI scientists interviewed for NOVA describe this film as a Proustian memory — remember HAL, the spacecraft computer that plots to sabotage the mission? ("Open the pod door, Hal ... Hal? Open the pod door, Hal!")

The idea that a computer could compete with a human's brain was resurrected in 1997 with the match between chess champion Garry Kasparov and IBM's "Deep Blue." The computer won, but programming a computer to win at chess is an exponentially simpler task than "training" it to understand the vagaries and nuances of human language.

The seed of the upcoming match was conceptualized in 2004, according to one version of the story, when a senior manager in IBM research met for dinner with a small team of employees in a New York state steakhouse. Suddenly the entire restaurant cleared out, decamping to the bar next door to watch the latest installment of Jennings' grand winning streak. What was all the fuss about? thought the manager. An idea was born — to match an IBM computer with contestants in the Hollywood game-show world.

The NOVA documentary follows the development of "Watson" over four years. If you're rooting for the humans, it's a pleasure to watch the programmers squirm and scheme as they attempt to deconstruct the intricacies of the "Jeopardy!" format (the host gives an answer; the contestant must come up with a question that matches it). The answers often rely on puns and double meanings, and a deep knowledge of pop culture is required.

In a particularly satisfying moment, project manager David Ferrucci, like a protective parent, gets seriously peeved when the host for a "Jeopardy!" test round keeps making fun of Watson's clueless answers. But the programmers persist, and Watson gets progressively less clueless. Its accuracy rate marches uphill.

By now you may be wondering: What is the point of all this, other than good fun on a few nights in February? Consider the possible applications for a computer that can intelligently answer humans' questions, writes Baker: Computers that staff customer-service call centers; answer arcane tax questions; research legal precedents; delve into mountains of obscure medical research like "a bionic Dr. House," after the grouchy hero of a popular TV show.

Baker's lively book is available now as an e-book — except for the final chapter. He will write that after the match, and the final version of the book (in print and e-book) will be published Feb. 17. That last chapter should be a doozy. This match has as many implications as another man vs. machine contest, that of John Henry versus the steam drill. Of course, we all know how that came out.

Mary Ann Gwinn: 206-464-2357 or Mary Ann Gwinn appears on Classical KING-FM's Arts Channel at

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