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IBM's Watson Finds Home At Rensselaer Poly Tech

IBM's cognitive computer will let university do advanced computing research and expose students to big data analytics disciplines.

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Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute has secured a complete installation of the IBM Watson system through an IBM grant program.

RPI faculty, researchers, and students will get an opportunity to work hands-on with the latest iteration of the cognitive computing system that famously bested human champions at Jeopardy! in 2011.

"The notion here is that we want to take the Watson system and get it into the university academic world," said Michael Henesey, a VP of Business Development who works with IBM Research. "We think this is going to produce great things."

[ Ready to polish your crystal ball? Read To Avoid Nasty Surprises, Higher Ed Turns To Prediction.]

RPI was chosen partly because of its strength in cognitive computing research and because computer scientists there were involved in some of the original research projects that led to the creation of Watson. In addition, RPI has long provided talent to IBM, which is headquartered in New York State and has one of its principle research centers there. This is the latest in a series of IBM partnerships with universities aimed at training data scientists.

"We'll hopefully generate strong new professionals out of it," Henesey said. That's the focus of IBM's broader efforts involving more than 200 educational institutions globally in big data and analytics research and education, he said. "We want skills to flow and become available to us. Our customers are also telling us this is a top concern of theirs because of the vast amount of information they're coming into contact with from social media and sensor data. We're seeing that 90% of the world's data was created in the last two years -- that's a fun statistic -- so we know it's growing, but the trick is how do we work with it."

15 terabytes of hard disk storage, the Watson system at Rensselaer will store more information than its Jeopardy! predecessor and will allow 20 users to access the system at once. Cognitive computing systems like Watson attempt to mimic the human brain, absorbing vast amounts of natural language data such as news articles, decoding its nuances and seeking to derive inferences and make optimal decisions.

IBM has been exploring practical applications of Watson technology in healthcare with WellPoint and Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center and in financial services with Citigroup. However, it's still far from being a neatly bundled product, and these organizations are partnering with IBM in a spirit of experimentation and exploration, Henesey said.

IBM's work with Rensselaer is "a collaboration to evolve the technology, so it's a little different," Henesey said. However, in addition to providing computer science researchers with a test bed, RPI will be encouraged to find applications of the analytic engine for use in other branches of science or economics. "They're very good at going cross-domain within the university," he said.

The grant of the Watson system was made under IBM's Shared University Research awards program, which connects the research and researchers at universities with IBM Research, IBM Global Services and IBM's development and industries labs. Among other things, the program aims to increase access and use of IBM technologies for research and in curriculum.

Henesey wouldn't say whether other universities should be lining up with requests for a similar grant of a Watson system. "What we're announcing now is the relationship with RPI. We're going to try to get that right and see where it takes us."

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