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Artificial-Intelligence Computer System ‘Watson’ Goes to College

The IBM supercomputer known as Watson already has an impressive résumé, having beaten two of Jeopardy’s most famous champions. But it is lacking in college experience.

Now the artificial-intelligence computing system is becoming a student of sorts at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, IBM announced on Tuesday. The New York institution is the first university to be provided with a Watson system.

Watson, which is named for IBM’s pioneering leader, Thomas J. Watson, is a computer system that uses an understanding of human language and a vast trove of data to provide evidence-based answers to users’ questions. It then ranks its responses based on its level of confidence that each is the correct answer.

At RPI, the Watson system will give professors and students an opportunity to find new uses for the technology, allowing students to gain experience with big data analytics and, in turn, deepen the system’s abilities, said Michael Henesey, vice president for business development at IBM, formally the International Business Machines Corporation. RPI was chosen to receive a Watson system based on the company’s long relationship with the university; several RPI graduates are members of the project’s team.

When Watson appeared on the television game show Jeopardy, in 2011, and beat the champions Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter, a “packed house” of RPI students, faculty members, and alumni cheered on the computer system at a special campus viewing, Mr. Henesey said.

“It’s a well-traveled road, and we’re pleased to have Watson now involved in the relationship,” he said.

The computer system will be smaller than its game-show-winning predecessor, but it will still be able to store roughly the same amount of information with 15 terabytes of memory. The Watson that appeared on Jeopardy could read 200 million pages of text in three seconds.

How well the system works at RPI will help determine how IBM goes about commercializing Watson, Mr. Henesey said. Watson is already in the early stages of use in the medical and banking fields.

“We’re going to see this out as a prototype relationship, if you will,” he said. “We want to make sure we get this right. So we’re going to be learning from all of this too.”

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