Will Watson Make the Grade at Rensselaer?

By Samuel Greengard

IBM’s Watson has garnered some splashy headlines over the last few years. The artificial intelligence system—designed to slice through the geek factor and make computers more usable and accessible—competed on the game show Jeopardy! in 2011 and obliterated two former champions. Watson, which IBM has commercialized, is distinguishing itself across a wide swath of industries, including health care, retail, telecommunications and financial services.

Now Watson will see if it can make the grade at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York State. The deployment—the first for any university—will usher in a new frontier of research and better position students for careers in the burgeoning fields of big data, analytics and cognitive computing.

“It provides new and entirely different ways to organize, view and process information, including unstructured data,” explains Jim Hendler, head of the Computer Science department at the university and a leading expert on the semantic Web.

Holding about 15 terabytes of data on hard disks, Rensselaer’s Watson system will store roughly the same amount of information as its Jeopardy! predecessor. It will allow 20 users to access the system simultaneously, thus creating an innovation hub at the campus.

In addition, faculty and students will work to further sharpen Watson’s reasoning and cognitive abilities by broadening the volume, types and sources of data the system can draw upon to answer questions. This approach could result in new innovations in a diverse array of fields, including high-performance computing, nanoelectronics, advanced materials research and artificial intelligence.

“What’s special about Watson is its ability to search and operate in more human terms,” Hendler says. “If you attempt to search and solve the same questions and challenges with a conventional search engine, it would be a very slow and tedious process. Watson provides a far more advanced type of numerical and analytic reasoning.”

Yet, at the same time, he notes that Watson offers the ability to journey into the fuzzy corners of the computing world. For example, one student has proposed research to see if it’s possible to make Watson daydream. “The proposed uses range from practical to crazy,” he adds.

Ultimately, Hendler hopes to find ways to better mesh the logic and thinking of computers and humans in order to further push the boundaries of computing. Watson will not fall within the exclusive domain of the school’s computing sciences department. There is applicability in engineering, cognitive sciences and many other areas.

 “We view Watson as a new type of computing resource that has applicability in almost every discipline and field,” he states.

Watson will be located at the school’s supercomputer center, the Computational Center for Nanotechnology Innovations. As part of a Shared University Research (SUR) Award granted by IBM Research, Big Blue will provide Rensselaer with Watson hardware, software and support services.

Rensselaer was one of eight universities that worked with IBM in 2011 on the development of open architecture that enabled researchers to collaborate on the underlying question-answering capabilities that help to power Watson.

“In the coming years,” Hendler concludes, “we will continue to see huge advances in computing. We will see more capable computers and markedly improved capabilities to find and use information. Watson is an important part of the picture.”