May 7, 2014
Software engineering students at the University of Michigan this fall will use IBM's "Jeopardy"-winning Watson system to develop apps that help children with special needs.
The artificially intelligent Watson is designed to process language more like a human than a machine, and to interact with people in ways that seem more natural than other systems.
Michigan is one of seven universities IBM is partnering with to give students access to the technology. Others are Carnegie Mellon University, Ohio State University, New York University, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, University of Texas and University of California, Berkeley.
Each school will focus on a different industry or topic. Students will input relevant data into Watson and train it. Then they'll break into teams and develop not just prototype apps, but also business plans to bring their ideas out to society. IBM will provide support from experts, guest lectures and technical mentors.
"It's going to be fun," said David Chesney, lecturer in computer science and engineering. "This is a wonderful tool for our students to get to experiment with. This is the generation that watched Watson win Jeopardy and I'm sure the opportunity to interact with it will really have an impact."
The focus on special needs is unique to U-M and reflects Chesney's longstanding practice of putting software engineering in a social context. His course is always popular. Already 70 students have signed up for the fall, with 50 more on the waiting list.
Two years ago, Chesney had students develop tools to help people with autism. Last year, the class focused on one person — a 13-year-old with cerebral palsy. They programmed devices and made apps that could help her communicate, play games and act more independently at home and at school.
This new collaboration gives the class a chance to take yet another perspective. They'll put the technology first and see where it leads, Chesney said.
The idea for the course came out of U-M, when IBM Watson group vice president and alumnus Michael Rhodin was visiting campus to discuss an unrelated research project. On a whim, Eric Michielssen, associate vice president for advanced research computing, floated the idea of giving students access to Watson.
"It was an instant hit and we kept talking about it," Michielssen said. "It's a win-win situation. For our students, it's a fantastic opportunity to tap into their creativity and gain exposure to this innovative AI system."
And for IBM, it's helping to prepare the next generation of cognitive computing specialists.
"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," Rhodin said.
"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."
The explosion of data-driven content has sparked a new wave of career opportunities for today's college students, from business analytics professionals to chief data officers, according to IBM's news release. Expertise in natural language processing, machine learning and managing content across its lifecycle will be valued.
These skills are the building blocks for a new class of cognitive apps and services that "deliver fast, evidence-based advice, by combing through millions of pages of data within seconds for discoveries that fuel smarter decisions and unleash creativity," according to IBM.
U-M's Business Engagement Center played an important role in enabling this partnership. The center was established in 2007 to strengthen the university's ties to business and community partners and to help revitalize and diversify the state of Michigan's economy. It connects organizations with talent and resources at U-M.