IBM's Watson Heads to School

Charlene OHanlon
In case you don't have plans for Valentine's Day, consider this a friendly reminder that IBM's Watson supercomputer will be making its debut Feb. 14 on the TV quiz show "Jeopardy!." It's a safe bet that homes (and bars full of single people) all across the country will be tuning in to see whether man-in this case, Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter, the two best players in "Jeopardy!" history-can indeed go toe-to-toe (toe-to-cable?) against a supercomputer and come out on top.

Entertainment value aside, IBM is hoping to parlay the question answering technology of Watson into something that actually is beneficial to humankind. And it has teamed with eight universities to help make that happen: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, University of Texas at Austin, University of Southern California, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, University at Albany, University of Trento in Italy and University of Massachusetts Amherst and Carnegie Mellon University.

The idea is to have the brightest minds in artificial intelligence research work with IBM to further its Open Advancement of Question-Answering Initiative (OAQA)-the architecture and methodology behind Watson-and find ways in which the technology can not only be useful in business but also in ways that help us in our everyday lives.

During a preview event in January-in which Watson, Jennings and Rutter showed their stuff to a group of journalists and analysts-John E. Kelly III, IBM senior vice president and director of IBM research, noted there are infinite applications for Watson's kind of intelligence, starting in the health care field.

"I think we have the potential to create a Dr. Watson, and I think we can probably save lives with it,' Kelly said. In fact, 'I cannot imagine a single industry where there isn't the potential to be transformed with this technology."

And that's what IBM's collaboration with the 'elite eight' hopes to achieve.

Of course, the collaborations have just been announced, and it's way too soon to determine how the artificial intelligence of a Watson-type computer can help our lives. But take five minutes and let your mind wander, and chances are you'll come up with any number of answers, from cars that drive themselves to get an oil change to robotic butlers capable of true conversations (a la 'Serge' on the short-lived "Caprica" or good ol' Rosie on "The Jetsons"). Of course, technology that advanced could have major negative implications as well, but that's another blog for another time.

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