UC Berkeley students seek to harness power of Jeopardy!-winning computer

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Three years ago, the IBM computer Watson showcased the power of artificial intelligence when it defeated two human contestants in a game of Jeopardy!, sifting through 200 million files at the dazzling speed of more than 80 trillion operations per second.

In fall, a class of UC Berkeley students will have the opportunity to harness the power of Watson — which is now 24 times faster than it was then.

The cognitive computing system renowned for its ability to quickly synthesize large amounts of data will be available to students at UC Berkeley and six other universities around the country, offering the opportunity to solve real-world problems in industries as diverse as health care, education and retail. Students will compete to develop prototype apps and business models with the chance of receiving up to $100,000 in seed funding from IBM.

According to Jim Spohrer, IBM’s director of global university programs, UC Berkeley was chosen because of its strength across many disciplines. Undergraduates from UC Berkeley’s business, engineering and information schools will collaborate in a business class called “Open Innovation Leveraging IBM Watson” this fall.

“You can build Watson for any discipline,” Spohrer said. “We have Watson for medicine, Watson for business discovery, Watson for financial advice, Watson for retail. Any profession you can think of, we can help people.”

Computers like Watson are heralding the dawn of a new technology called cognitive computing, Spohrer said. Unlike today’s computers, which answer only the questions they are programmed to answer, cognitive computers are designed to learn on their own.

Whereas programming now requires knowledge of special languages, cognitive computing will enable more communication and problem solving with everyday speech, according to Spohrer.

“It will require a next generation of skills and a next generation of entrepreneurs,” Spohrer said. “That’s really the key thing — developing the skills that will help the next generation of students develop these systems.”

The technology could be particularly useful in the developing world, said Solomon Darwin, executive director of the Center for Corporate Innovation at the Haas School of Business and co-instructor of the class. In emerging economies such as India — which has more than 900 million mobile subscribers — Watson could utilize cloud computing to bring the power of cognitive computing to anyone with an Internet connection.

“A person in the remotest parts of the world can have access to Watson through their cellphone,” Darwin said. “Watson is always up-to-date with information, and it can process much more quickly than a human can.”

Students will own the intellectual property rights to the projects they create, according to Darwin.

“This really is a new era of computing,” Spohrer said. “These students are really on the ground floor of something exciting.”

Contact Chris Yoder at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @christiancyoder.