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IBM's Watson comes to computer science department at the University of Toronto

IBM's Watson (photo by John Tolva via Flickr)

A group of students in the department of computer science at the University of Toronto are getting what experts say is the opportunity of a lifetime.

The vast capabilities of IBM’s Watson, the cognitive computing technology widely known for winning the 2011 Jeopardy challenge, will be made available to students learning to develop innovative artificial intelligence (AI)-based applications.  

IBM has created the IBM Watson Cognitive Computing Competition, which brings Watson into the academic realm by incorporating the technology into an undergraduate curriculum that combines computing skills with entrepreneurship, and has invited U of T’s computer science department to participate in the program.  

U of T is the only Canadian participant among an elite group of 10 universities, including Carnegie Mellon University, the University of California at Berkeley and Stanford University.

“We are delighted that IBM has recognized the University of Toronto’s strength in artificial intelligence,” said Sven Dickinson, chair of computer science. The department was recently ranked among the top 10 computer science departments worldwide in the prestigious Shanghai Jiao Tong University’s Academic Ranking of World Universities.

“Not many people gain exclusive access to this tremendous resource. This is a fantastic opportunity for our students to learn how to deliver innovative new AI-based applications to the market.”

The competition will be structured as a half-year fourth-year course, in which students will work in teams that will use Watson to solve a challenging, big-data problem in a chosen industry. Students will develop the skills to upload industry-relevant information into Watson’s body of knowledge and train it to provide evidence-based responses, enabling the system to learn and improve with each natural language interaction. At the same time, students will learn to think like high-tech entrepreneurs and develop effective, commercially-successful business plans that solve real-world challenges, through an entrepreneurship component that includes high-profile guest lecturers, Dickinson said.

(Pictured above, right: a Watson group of U of T students Eric Jiménez, Kevin Yuen and Jonathan Webb  with lecturer Helen Kontozopoulos.) 

One team will be selected to go on to the Watson Challenge in Manhattan in January 2015, where the top groups representing the 10 participating institutions will compete for a $100,000 US prize awarded to the team that creates the most insightful and articulate business proposal for the IBM Watson platform.

"By putting Watson in the hands of tomorrow’s innovators, we are unleashing the creativity of the academic community into a fast-growing ecosystem of partners who are building transformative cognitive computing applications,” said Michael Rhodin, senior vice-president of IBM Watson Group. “This is how we will make cognitive the new standard of computing across the globe: by inspiring all catalysts of innovation, from university campuses to startup offices, to take Watson's capabilities and create apps that solve major challenges.” 

Kim Luke is a writer with the Faculty of Arts & Science at the University of Toronto.