RPI receives IBM Watson hardware

Computing giant chooses RPI as first school to gain access to technology

RPI RECEIVES the hardware and software of IBM’s Watson computing system. Watson gained international attention after defeating both Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter in Jeopardy! .

On Wednesday, January 30, IBM and President Shirley Ann Jackson announced that RPI will receive one of IBM’s Watson systems. As a result, Rensselaer will be the first school of higher education in the world to receive such technology.

The computer system being sent to RPI was built following the original Watson’s success in a variety of fields. Watson originally gained international attention after its appearance on the game show Jeopardy!.

The computer system first showed up on the set of the show on January 13, 2012, for a practice match against the two most successful Jeopardy! contestants in history, Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter. Watson won the match with $4,400, while Jennings and Rutter scored $3,400 and $1,200, respectively. The official matches were recorded the following day but were not aired until February 14, 2012. Watson emerged victorious over Jennings and Rutter with a total score of $77,147 over the course of two matches, while Jennings scored $24,000, and Rutter scored $21,600.

Following the success in Jeopardy!, IBM has decided to spread Watson’s technology to the fields of healthcare and finance. Watson could theoretically take symptoms relayed to it by a physician and use its capacity for natural language processing to determine diagnoses for the patient. IBM’s website highlights this, stating, “The ability to take context into account during the hypothesis generation and scoring phases of the processing pipeline allows Watson to address these complex problems, helping the doctor—and patient—make more informed and accurate decisions.” Watson could similarly be effective in finance by advising financial institutions regarding investment and lending policies.

IBM, though, has also decided to bring the technology for systems like Watson to universities and institutes. However, rather than bringing this first to schools like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology or the California Institute of Technology—which tend to receive technological innovations first—IBM chose RPI as the recipient of Watson’s technology. The donation of Watson’s hardware and software was part of IBM Research’s Shared University Research Award.

According to RPI’s News and Editorial Services, “With 15 terabytes of memory, the Watson system at Rensselaer will store more information than its Jeopardy! predecessor and will allow 20 users to access the system at once—creating an innovation hub on the Institute’s New York campus.”

Researchers—primarily faculty researchers and graduate students—will have access to the technology to “harness the power of Watson for driving new innovations in finance, information technology, business analytics, and other areas.” However, Vice President for Information Services and Technology and Chief Information Officer John Kolb ’79 emphasized that undergraduate students would also have access to the system. Project topics also include web science, “Big Data,” and artificial intelligence.

On its website, IBM states that Watson differentiates itself from other computers because of its cognitive abilities. Particularly, it highlights Watson’s “ability to discern double meanings in words, puns, rhymes, and inferred hints,” “extremely rapid responses,” and “ability to process vast amounts of information to make complex and subtle logical connections.”

Watson’s hardware will be located at the Rensselaer Technology Park. IBM is also responsible for other hardware located at the Tech Park, including the Institute’s old Blue Gene/L supercomputer and its new Blue Gene/Q supercomputer, both of which are IBM systems. According to the information wiki for the Computational Center for Nanotechnology Innovations, “The Blue Gene/Q is a 1-rack, 1024 node IBM Blue Gene/Q. Each node consists of a 16-core 1.6 GHz A2 processor, with 16 GB of DDR3 memory.”

The announcement about the system was made by Jackson at 1 pm in Studio 1 of the Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center. For more information, contact the staff of the CCNI, including director Christopher Carothers.

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