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IBM Watson's Future: Students Have Winning Ideas

University of Southern California students brainstormed novel business uses for the big data-crunching supercomputer; a legal discovery application came out on top.

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Rather than matching wits with the IBM Watson computing system, how much better is it to enter a contest where Watson is on your side?

University of Southern California students are the latest to participate in an IBM business partner contest focused on brainstorming practical applications for the supercomputer that makes sense of huge volumes of unstructured information. This follows similar competitions with the University of Rochester and Cornell University.

IBM is still milking Watson's triumph over human Jeopardy champions in 2011, even as it seeks to prove that the cognitive computing system is more than a master of trivia. One of its focuses for building that credibility is in higher education, where it has introduced the technology to the study of medicine and has provided a complete system to one of its design partners, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

[ Want to know about IBM's university partnerships? See IBM, Universities Team Up To Build Data Scientists. ]

From among 100 USC students organized into 24 teams, the judges, comprised of USC officials, IBM executives and local business leaders, picked three winning ideas:

-- 1st Place, Legal Research: Let Watson Do the Discovery for Your Next Legal Case

-- 2nd Place, Employee Training: Watson Uncovers the Keys to Success for Your Employees

-- 3rd Place, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: Watson Helps Doctors Find Patients

Although the weekend exercise did not extend to actually trying to implement these ideas, the judges were charged with assessing the feasibility of the ideas, said IBM's Steven Gold, VP of Watson solutions.

"They looked at the diversity of data, the form of the data -- whether it was structured or unstructured -- the volume of data, and how students intended to use the data."

This was not an exercise just for computer science engineering students, instead inviting those from a variety of majors. In fact, each team was required to have at least one member from USC's business school and one from its engineering school. "That's exciting because this is one of the few times during their studies where they will work with and be exposed to other disciplines, which, when you think about it, is parallel to what they will work with when they get out into the workforce," Gold said.

Several teams came up with some variant on the winning idea, which reflects the vast numbers of company emails and documents attorneys sift through to support a lawsuit or defend against one. However, one team was better prepared to overcome a key objection. Stakeholder interests were "not aligned because lawyers charge by the hour," said Daniel Wang, a USC junior studying accounting, from the winning team. "We found research to show this is actually changing -- that more lawyers are using project or flat-fee pricing, which is one thing that would make them interested in adopting Watson."

"We want to inspire students to think about what new ventures or enterprises can they create on their own as they look at the technologies available to them today," said Ashish Soni, executive director of the digital innovation program at USC and a professor in its school of engineering.

The only thing better would be to give students some real hands-on experience with the technology, Soni said, and he hopes to make that happen.

Follow David F. Carr at @davidfcarr or Google+, along with @IWKEducation.

Can data analysis keep students on track and improve college retention rates? Also in the premiere all-digital Analytics' Big Test issue of InformationWeek Education: Higher education is just as prone to tech-based disruption as other industries. (Free with registration.)

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User Rank: Apprentice
3/18/2013 | 5:00:40 AM
re: IBM Watson's Future: Students Have Winning Ideas
I can imagine all kinds of applications for the use of Watson's abilities. How about putting it to work with the mess of our patent system? Or leased by the various police departments across the country to input and share information which would in turn be used to solve crimes. So many possibilities...
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