Behind the Scenes at the 'Jeopardy!' Match with IBM's Watson

Don Tennant

Now that the anxiously-awaited "Jeopardy!" tournament between IBM's Watson and a couple of human "Jeopardy!" champions is upon us-it will be aired on Feb. 14, 15 and 16-I thought it would be cool to provide a behind-the-scenes look at what it was like to be at the actual taping of the shows. No, I wasn't there, but I've spoken at length with someone who was.

 

The shows were taped on the afternoon of Friday, Jan. 14, and among the guests was Stephen Baker, author of "Final Jeopardy: Man vs. Machine and the Quest to Know Everything." The book is a remarkably informative, entertaining account of IBM's Watson project and the amazing series of events-triumphs and setbacks alike-that culminated with the taping last month. I spoke with Baker last week, and you can read my interview with him elsewhere on the site. Aside from what I included there, I wanted to highlight here what Baker shared about the day of the match, and the immediate aftermath.

 

The taping took place in a makeshift studio that had been constructed at IBM Research in Hawthorne, N.Y., where Watson was built. Baker described the scene this way:

It was a very special day at IBM Research. They had the whole place cloistered off. There was high security-the regular workforce that works at IBM Research, which is a big operation, had the day off. I went to the normal parking lot, and it was blocked off for VIPs, of which I was not one. It felt like you were walking into a secure Pentagon operation.

 

You went in, and they had a brunch laid out in the lobby, which is usually a lonely place where there's just one guard. There were a lot of top IBM executives milling about, and they'd also invited a lot of their customers. So you had executives from the pharmaceutical industry and the banking industry, and it was sort of like a Who's Who. And then there was Sony [whose production arm owns Jeopardy] and their guests.

 

Then you had a feeling of great nervousness, because so much was at stake for IBM. This was going to be a nationally telecast show, and their machine that they'd spent four years building was going to be on center stage. And there was always a chance their machine would not only lose, but embarrass the company and screw up. So there was a sense of great anticipation that day.


I told Baker that I couldn't fathom how the outcome of the match had been kept secret all this time, and I asked him whether he had any sense of how that was accomplished. His response:

You know, I am totally amazed by this. I figured, OK, if you have IBM people and Jeopardy people, conceivably they'll keep it a secret. But once you bring in corporate customers-executives from pharmaceutical companies and banks-I just couldn't imagine that they wouldn't go home to dinner that night and say, "You wouldn't believe what I just saw." I mentioned that to somebody-I said, "Those kids will be on Twitter and Facebook saying what happened at the dinner table." The person said to me, "Did it ever occur to you that the kids don't care?" That might be the answer.

The version of Baker's book that had been released to date lacked the final chapter, which was to be an account of the match itself, so that chapter was to be sent separately to those readers. I asked Baker when he wrote the final chapter:

The match happened on a Friday afternoon, and I had to produce a draft of the final chapter that weekend-Saturday and Sunday [Jan. 15-16]. It was a great weekend for NFL football, and I was really sorry to be missing it. So I would write and write and write, and then reward myself with like half an hour of playoff football, and go right back to it.

I knew Baker would avoid saying anything that would hint at the outcome, but I did ask him if he went into the taping with an expectation of who the winner would likely be. He said he did not:

The way I looked at it was almost like the Super Bowl. I could have an inkling that Roethlisberger had more experience, and I could build a case for the Steelers winning, but you didn't know. And in the end, it turned on a bunch of turnovers by Pittsburgh. Those turnovers in a football game are like one side or the other getting a Daily Double, or screwing up Final Jeopardy. I mean, I had seen enough of Watson winning and losing to know that you just never know.


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