Watson, the supercomputer from International Business Machines Corp. (NYSE:IBM), the No. 2 computer company, that already has been fed most of the world’s knowledge, is going to college: Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute has received a modified version for research into “big data.”
The Troy, N.Y., university is the first campus to receive Watson, one of the most powerful servers devised by IBM, of Armonk, N.Y., which has already placed them at New York’s Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, Citigroup Inc. (NYSE:C) and WellPoint Inc. (NYSE:WLP), the national health chain.
RPI, founded in 1824, and IBM, founded in 1911, have decades of cooperative ties.
RPI President Shirley Ann Jackson has been an IBM director since 2005.
RPI’s Board of Trustees includes Linda S. Sanford, a 1975 alumna who is IBM Senior VP for On Demand Transformation and Information Technology; John E. Kelley, a 1978 alumnus who is IBM’s Senior VP for Research, and Nicholas Donofrio, a 1967 alumnus who retired as an Executive VP after years of leading the mainframe division.
Watson itself is a cluster of 90 IBM Power 750 servers, plus additional networking and control nodes, first devised as part of a 2006 IBM Research program to develop a machine that could understand natural language, respond to voice queries and search essentially all the globe’s known data for answers. But the goal was also to get the computer to make inferences to solve problems, said Rod Smith, one of its developers.
The computer got its name from IBM's first president, Thomas J. Watson. His son, Thomas J. Watson Jr., was IBM's second president, from 1952 to 1971.
The supercomputer stands alone, not connected to the Internet, but linked to various IBM Research facilities worldwide.
In early 2011, IBM rolled out Watson on national TV, where it knocked out three of the best champions on “Jeopardy,” a production of Sony Corp.’s (NYSE:SNE) TV division. It won a $1 million prize. The week of broadcasts scored record ratings in what was probably the greatest public demonstration of artificial intelligence.
James Hendler, the RPI professor who heads the computer sciences department, said students who don’t have fixed ideas about computing are probably the ideal candidates to work with Watson to prove “that humans and computers can do things together.”
The RPI machine will have 15 terabytes of stored data, equivalent to the “Jeopardy” unit, and allow 20 users to access it simultaneously. Jackson and Hendler said it will be used for work in engineering, science and big data as well as cognitive computing.
IBM hasn’t disclosed how much it spent to develop Watson. But the company, now headed by CEO Virginia Rometty, a graduate of Northwestern University with a degree in electrical engineering and computer sciences, continues to invest in advanced research and development. Last year’s spending was $6.3 billion, up slightly from $6.26 billion in 2011.
Shares of IBM rose 30 cents to $203.82 in Thursday trading. They’ve gained 6.4 percent in January.
David Zielenziger is a veteran editor and journalist who has written for newspapers including the Baltimore Sun, Asian Wall Street Journal and EETimes, as well as for...