Watson at Rensselaer

by Michael Mullaney on February 5, 2013

Campus is still abuzz from last week’s announcement that IBM will give a version of its Watson system to Rensselaer. The computer rose to fame in early 2011 after if defeated the two all-time human champions of the quiz show Jeopardy!. The Internet is also abuzz with the news, and our own Jim Hendler is at the very center of the media merriment.

Professor Hendler, who is the head of our Department of Computer Science and one of the lead researchers on the Watson project at Rensselaer, recently did a Q&A with the Washington Post about the future of Watson at Rensselaer. A snippet is below, and you can read the entire story here.

WashPo: What will be the first steps in introducing Watson to the RPI team?

Hendler: Programming Watson requires understanding its particular flow of control in Question-Answering. For those people on campus who have not already been involved in the project, we will have several faculty, staff and students take a 2-day training course led by the IBM team, and then those people, in turn, will be able to teach others as well as jump-starting our work.

What “classes” will Watson be taking? Additionally, will this be, perhaps, the opportunity to create a “curriculum,” if you will, for other systems when it comes to processing the large volume of unstructured data out there?

We will be looking at a number of different projects that explore what Watson can do. One thing we want to explore is how Watson can interact with social media, especially things such as “tweets” where the language is not as carefully constructed as it is in the documents Watson has used in the Jeopardy game. Another thing we will be exploring is adding various kinds of numerical reasoning to Watson. There’s lots more.

So to do all this, we’re taking a two-pronged attack. One approach, utilizing our graduate students, will be exploring how to add new capabilities to Watson and how to use its current capabilities in many of our ongoing research projects. For example, I run a group that does a lot of work with Open Government Data systems (like the US data.gov) and we’re excited about the possibility of using Watson to help researchers around the world find relevant government data and documents for their work.

At the end of the three-year project, what is the ultimate goal for Watson?

Imagine having been the first university to get a telescope a few centuries back. Everywhere you pointed it was something new and exciting, and it would be impossible to predict everything you would see. Having Watson is like that for us — our goal for the next few years is to gain an understanding of what having the new ways of bringing unstructured data and documents into our computational lives will be.