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Supercomputer That Beat Jeopardy Champs Among Innovations Explored During Conference Hosted by School of Business

March 03, 2012
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  IBM Watson

One year after the IBM robot called Watson competed against and beat the all-time champions of the television game show Jeopardy, Manoj Saxena was at the School of Business to discuss the accomplishment with MBA students and academic scholars. Saxena, general manager of Watson Solutions, IBM Software Group, leads the effort to commercialize the supercomputer, which navigated the complexities of human speech, churned through 200 million pages of unstructured data in less than 3 seconds, and delivered a confidence-based response, to beat the Jeopardy champions last February.

“Watson captured people’s imaginations,” said Saxena, speaking during an Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences (INFORMS) Conference hosted by the School in February. The conference, “Optimization and Analytics: New Frontiers in Theory and Practice,” brought together scholars and researchers to discuss leading practices and innovations in the field, such as ‘Watson.’

Creating Watson was no easy feat, he said. It took the largest math department in the country five years to build the machine, which can not only read and understand millions of pages of information in seconds, but can also grasp the concept of puns, similes and the semantics of human grammar.

“The scale of Watson is what’s impressive,” according to Saxena, who says the machine can sift through 80% of the web’s unstructured data, such as blog posts, to help formulate answers to questions. “What Google is to search, Watson is to discovery,” he said.

What makes Watson so different from search engines is its ability to not only process but also analyze, a much-needed tool considering the rate at which information is expanding and today’s demand for instant gratification.

“This is a real life opportunity to see technology complement the work of humans and vice versa,” said Gustavo Bartczak, a UM MBA student who attended the talk.

Saxena also discussed what’s next for Watson and IBM.

“Data will grow 800 percent in the next five years,” said Saxena. “This is not a three, five, or seven year journey.”

This data includes medical information, Watson’s current area of concentration. In Aug. 2011, the Watson team began commercializing Watson in the health care sector. The team is on a mission to beat cancer, as medical information is doubling every five years. According to Saxena, Watson is better equipped to help diagnose diseases - which have a one in five chance of being diagnosed incorrectly - because it generates and evaluates hypotheses based on patient symptoms, family medical history, medication history, findings of journals and test results. “This is a GPS system for doctors,” he said.

IBM hopes to integrate Watson into sectors such as finance, government, insurance and education in 2012, as well as implement this technology into countries in Asia and Africa in different languages late next year. “These solutions give us promise for the future, no matter what kind of career we choose,” Gopi Kannan, another UM MBA student who attended the discussion.

“We’re facing an explosion of data, a hyper-connected society, a push for relentless innovation and increasingly demanding customers,” said Saxena. “Businesses are dying of thirst in an ocean of data,” and Watson will quench that thirst, according to Saxena.

The Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences (INFORMS) is the largest professional society in the field of operations research, management science and business analytics. Anuj Mehrotra, vice dean and professor of management science at the School, co-chaired the conference.

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