IBM's Watson supercomputer goes to college for extra smarts

University scientists will use Watson for research, while also advancing its cognitive abilities

Watson, IBM's supercomputer that came to fame besting a Jeopardy champion, is going to college to hone its skills.

IBM said Wednesday that it will provide a modified version of an IBM Watson system to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y. University scientists will use the supercomputer for research, but they also are expected to enhance the machine's cognitive capabilities.

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The university is the first to receive a Watson system, and IBM executives are hoping it will be a mutually beneficial relationship.

Michael Rowinski, an IBM spokesman, told Computerworld that while RPI students and faculty will be using Watson for their own research projects, computer scientists will also be working to expand the machine's capabilities.

"Watson uses a lot of structured data, neatly defined and tabled," Sawinski said. "But a lot of data being created today is unstructured and a lot of it is coming from videos and photos. In the health care world, think of all the data within health care images. The real future is being able to extract information from things like photographs and videos."

That is a big part of what university researchers will be working on.

"Think about tweets and social media posts. Data coming from sensors -- all that real-time data," Sawinski said. "They really want to try to help expand the types of data that a cognitive system like Watson would be able to parse and could put into its question-and-answer processing."

According to a statement on the RPI site, students and faculty will attempt to "sharpen Watson's reasoning and cognitive abilities, while broadening the volume, types, and sources of data Watson can draw upon to answer questions." They will also use Watson explore "innovations in finance, information technology, business analytics, and other areas."

Watson, which is being used in the health care industry, first garnered international attention when it took on and defeated all-time Jeopardy champions Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter in early 2011. In the man vs. machine challenge, Watson faltered in a few categories, but was faster to the buzzer and more knowledgeable than the game show's human champions.

The challenge, which featured Watson answering human's natural language questions, was touted by some observers as one of the biggest computing advancements in the past several decades.

Watson represents the next stage in what has been a longstanding effort to develop a computer that can mimic human intelligence. The supercomputer, which is based on IBM's Power 7 server hardware, is a study in advancements in artificial intelligence and natural language processing.

IBM scientists have had high expectations for Watson's ability to learn.

According to IBM, RPI's Watson system has 15 terabytes of hard disk storage, enabling 20 users to access the system at one time.

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, on Google+ or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed. Her email address is

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