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U of T student-entrepreneurs head to New York this week to compete for US$100,000 in seed money

u of t ibm watson challenge

L to R: Shuai Wang, Jimoh Ovbiagele, Akash Venkat, Pargles Dall’oglio and Andrew Arruda. Photo: Andrew Arruda.

Answer: A high-stakes contest pitting a University of Toronto team against U.S. heavyweights, featuring a super computer whose fictional counterpart’s name is often mistakenly associated with “elementary.”

Question: What is the 2015 IBM Watson Challenge?

Actually, Sherlock Holmes never uttered the phrase “Elementary, dear Watson” in any of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories, a fact IBM’s “Watson” would surely have noted had the matter come up when the cognitive computer won Jeopardy, a TV quiz show where answers must be phrased as questions.

As a legal sleuth, computer Watson also has few equals, an ability the U of T team aims to ride to victory when they test their technology and business savvy against students from the likes of MIT and Stanford University at the competition Jan. 9 in New York at IBM’s headquarters for Watson.

The winner gets $100,000 US in seed money for a start-up business application powered by Watson.

“We’re the only non-U.S. school invited to this, and it’s like when the Blue Jays won the World Series,” says U of T computer science professor Steve Engels. “That’s what we want to do at this competition.”

Able to sift through billions of documents in seconds, Watson can be trained to “understand” and answer questions on various topics in plain English, says Engels. In the world of computers, it is the closest thing to human intuition yet devised, with potential applications ranging from medicine to law.

Available remotely through IBM’s cloud computing system, some experts predict students, lawyers and clients will increasingly be turning to Watson for legal research assistance. The U of T team hopes the app many will be using to access Watson will be “Ross.”

“The idea is you could have this on your phone as an app and just tap on the icon for Ross, and it would allow you either to type in or speak a question you want answered,” says Engels. Ross will also constantly update with new legal information as it becomes available.

Each team at the pressure-packed New York competition will be given 20 minutes to state their case and demonstrate their product in front of a panel of high ranking IBM executives and venture capitalists, with the top three brought back the same day for a final round.

Simply being invited into the Watson program – which was structured as an undergraduate course – affirmed the status of U of T’s computer science department, consistently ranked among the top ten in the world.

IBM was so impressed with Ross and the other U of T teams – Divorcesay, Loom, Sherlocke and Expressway – that competed for the right to go to New York as part of their coursework, they are granting them all continued access to Watson to develop their prototypes or explore other applications.

All the teams were also exposed to local investors and law firms who want to follow up with them and their work, says Engels.

“It has been an amazing opportunity,” says Ross team member Akash Venkat. “Regardless of what happens in New York, as long as we have access to Watson, I think we’ll definitely continue.”