IBM’s Watson teaches that big data is elementary

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A. Sue Weisler

Carol Romanowski, associate professor of computer science, shows her class how to train Watson—IBM’s artificially intelligent supercomputer.

Answer: This is how computer science graduate students at RIT are learning about data analytics and cognitive computing.

Question: What is IBM’s Watson?

Correct! Using Watson—the artificially intelligent supercomputer made famous in 2011 by its winning run on the quiz show Jeopardy!—20 students are learning how natural language processing and machine learning can be used to develop applications for self-learning computer systems.

Through IBM’s Watson University Program, more than 70 schools around the world have access to a cloud-based version of the computer system, in an effort to strengthen student skills and understanding of big data analytics. RIT is partnering with IBM to offer “Topics in Data Management: Data Analytics with Cognitive Computing.”

“For the first assignment, I have students watch a few episodes of Jeopardy!” said Carol Romanowski, an avid Jeopardy! fan and associate professor of computer science who is teaching the course this spring. “You need to understand how the questions are asked and get an idea of what problems can arise during human verbal interactions.”

Watson is a question answering computer system that gains knowledge when fed structured text data. The text documents could include anything from medical information to building codes. Watson is able to understand the sentences in word documents and answer questions posed in natural language by offering what it identifies as relevant information.

To make that relevant information more useful, students are in charge of training Watson. By asking the system more and different questions and ranking Watson’s responses, the machine begins to learn the appropriate answers.

“But like anything with data mining, you can’t have only one person doing it,” Romanowski said. “It’s important to have a variety of experts feeding Watson data and training it.”

In the fall, student groups trained Watson to give restaurant recommendations and figure out what movie they should watch based on a desired plot. Other groups trained Watson to answer questions about different subjects, like WWII history and cancer research.

“I believe artificial intelligence and Watson will have a huge impact in the future,” said Niharika Bandla, a computer science graduate student from India, who took the fall course. “I could see many people using Watson to help them make decisions.” Still, artificial intelligence is not a magic bullet, explained Romanowski. The machine is only as smart as the data experts who feed it information and train it. In fact, during its TV appearance even Watson got a Final Jeopardy! response incorrect.

Test your knowledge of Watson

If Watson were a category on Jeopardy!, here are some possible answers. See if you can get the correct response.

1. The Watson computer was named after this industrialist and first CEO of IBM.

2. On Jeopardy!, Watson had access to 200 million pages of content consuming four of this unit of disk storage.

3. This field of study gives computers the ability to learn without being explicitly programmed.

1. Who is Thomas J. Watson? 2. What are terabytes? 3. What is machine learning?