IBM sends its Watson supercomputer to college


Artificial intelligence researchers at RPI want to do things like improve Watson’s mathematical ability and help it quickly figure out the meaning of new or made-up words. They want to improve its ability to handle the torrent of images, videos, and eMails on the web, the sort of unstructured information that is overwhelmingly fueling the data boom.

For Selmer Bringsjord, who heads RPI’s department of cognitive science, getting a crack at Watson is like a car aficionado being tossed the keys to a souped-up Lamborghini. Bringsjord said he and his graduate students could potentially focus on providing Watson with a deeper understanding of the structure of sentences and how dialogues unfold.

“If I can make a tiny, tiny contribution in that direction, given how historic the system is, I’d be very happy, and I think my graduate students would be as well,” Bringsjord said.

The original Watson remains at IBM’s Research Headquarters in Westchester County, N.Y., about 100 miles south of the school. RPI has hardware fully dedicated to running the system’s software at its supercomputing center in the Rensselaer Tech Park near the school. RPI’s version of Watson has 15 terabytes of memory, enough to store a massive library. It will allow 20 users to access the system at once.

IBM has worked collaboratively with other outside institutions on Watson, such as Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, New York-based Citigroup Inc., and the Cleveland Clinic. But this is the first time hardware fully dedicated to running the Watson software is being installed at a college.

Officials with IBM and RPI say Watson’s college tenure also will prepare RPI students for jobs in cognitive science and “big data,” a field where demand is quickly outpacing supply. John Kolb, RPI’s chief information officer, said he would like the next generation of the school’s technology graduates “to help IBM take Watson to the next level.”

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