IBM's Watson Cognitive Computing System Spurs Big Data Competition at USC

IBM takes its Watson cognitive computing system to the University of Southern California to get students to compete on big data projects based on Watson's capabilities.

IBM has taken its Watson cognitive computing system on a road trip to the West Coast to tap students at the University of Southern California for new ideas and innovation based on the supercomputer's capabilities.

Two years after seeing it challenge human competitors on "Jeopardy," IBM is putting Watson to work in ways that will change how business and health care leaders solve problems. And while company researchers are hard at work developing new commercial applications for the cognitive computing innovation, IBM is also turning to brilliant young minds in academia for big ideas on where Watson should work next.

For instance, imagine a Watson-powered system that could uncover data-driven insights to help medical professionals identify those who may be suffering silently from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), provide lawyers with faster research capabilities to improve their cases and help businesses hire the best talent in the job market.

These are some of the ideas sparked by more than 100 University of Southern California students who gathered recently to compete in the IBM Watson Academic Case Competition. A debut on the West Coast, the Case Competition put USC students in the spotlight to create business plans for applying Watson to pressing business and societal challenges, and IBM business leaders were present and listening carefully.

IBM partners with thousands of universities to develop curriculum, internships and hands-on learning experiences. Big Blue is helping bring students into the world of big data, analytics and cognitive computing. The company is helping foster a new workforce of big data trained professionals, from IBM's collaboration with Cleveland Clinic, which provides Watson as a collaborative learning tool for medical students, to its public-private partnership with the New York City Department of Education and the City University of New York to create the Pathways in Technology Early College High School program (P-TECH), which allows students to participate in a six-year science and technology program and graduate with an associate degree for free in computer science or engineering.

To kick off the competition at USC's campus, IBM provided students with a crash course on Watson's capabilities, including a demonstration of how Watson is helping WellPoint and Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center improve the speed and quality of treatment for cancer patients. As the first cognitive computing system of its kind in the marketplace, Watson is able to understand and process the subtleties of human questions, sift through vast amounts of data and use sophisticated analytics to generate fast, accurate answers for its human users, IBM said. Watson also learns from its interactions, constantly improving with each use.

As part of the competition, students were assigned into 24 teams and given 48 hours to define a new purpose for Watson, develop a business plan and present it to a panel of judges that included school officials, IBM executives and local business leaders. The challenge was unique among USC competitions because students worked toward a common goal with peers from other disciplines.

To foster interdisciplinary collaboration, each team was required to have at least one business and one engineering member, from USC's Marshall Business School and Viterbi School of Engineering.