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From Jeopardy! to the classroom: IBM brings its Watson platform to computer science

Photo of: Eric Jiménez, Kevin Yuen and Jonathan Webb with lecturer Helen Kontozopoulos

A Watson group of U of T students Eric Jiménez, Kevin Yuen and Jonathan Webb with lecturer Helen Kontozopoulos.

A group of students in the Department of Computer Science at the University of Toronto are getting the opportunity of a lifetime. Using the vast capabilities of IBM’s Watson, the cognitive computing technology widely known for winning the 2011 Jeopardy! challenge, the students will be 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 Department of Computer Science to participate in the program. Only 10 universities have been selected to take part. The University of Toronto is the only Canadian participant among an elite group that includes 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 the Department 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.

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, 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 start-up offices, to take Watson’s capabilities and create apps that solve major challenges.”