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Rensselaer/IBM Watson News Conference

Remarks by Shirley Ann Jackson, Ph.D.
President, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, NY

Wednesday, January 30, 2013


Good afternoon, everyone. Allow me to extend a warm Rensselaer welcome to all on this noteworthy occasion.

This indeed is a memorable day. The road to this event began almost two years ago when we, at Rensselaer, and millions around the nation, sat spellbound watching a new IBM computer, named Watson, compete against the two all-time human Jeopardy champions in an unprecedented – and some might say, risky – three-night contest.

After years of hard work by talented IBM scientists and researchers – led by several who graduated from Rensselaer – IBM had begun searching for a way to demonstrate – in a dramatic way -- how this new system could work. They wanted virtually everyone – from sophisticated computer scientists to lay observers – to appreciate the cognitive computing ability of Watson. The process eventually led them to the producers of Jeopardy, and to the development of the internationally broadcast contest, that would challenge a computer system in a fashion never before attempted. IBM, you might recall, was not new to such challenges. This was the company, and these were the people whose predecessors had staged the epic chess match between the Deep Blue computer and world champion Garry Kasparov in 1997.

The three nights of Jeopardy in February 2011 drew thousands of observers to watch the broadcast here at Rensselaer as it happened, and to hear from some of our own faculty experts. We all know what happened. Watson more than proved its mettle against the two best Jeopardy minds in the world. As we heard human Jeopardy champion Ken Jennings say – “I, for one, welcome our new computer overlords” – most of us were filled with ideas about the possibilities for such a computer, with its vast natural language understanding and cognitive capabilities.

Perhaps our very own Dr. Jim Hendler – head of our computer science department, Senior Tetherless World Constellation Professor, and a renowned expert in the field of Web science – summed it up best when he was quoted in an article by The Associated Press the day of Watson’s victory. He said:

"A human working with Watson can get a better answer. Using what humans are good at and what Watson is good at, together, we can build systems that solve problems that neither of us can solve alone."

Since that historic event, our friends and partners at IBM have been exploring where Watson could go and what it could do. Most recently, IBM has put Watson to work in the field of healthcare, where it has many possible uses in helping doctors to diagnose disease.

In addition to that effort, IBM has been exploring what Watson could do to further research and education on college and university campuses. We are glad they did – because that is what has led to the events of today.

We are pleased to announce that IBM has decided that Rensselaer will be the first university to receive a Watson computing system. It will afford our faculty and students opportunities to find new uses for Watson, and to deepen the cognitive capabilities of the system. The arrival of the Watson system will enable new pioneering research at Rensselaer – to answer basic scientific questions and to address grand challenges – where science and engineering meet society.  The firsthand experience of working with Watson will help to better position Rensselaer students as future leaders in the areas of Big Data, data analytics, and cognitive computing.

This very generous decision by IBM is part of the company’s Shared University Research Award to Rensselaer. Under the terms of the award, IBM will provide Rensselaer with Watson hardware, software, and support services. Once Watson is up and running, multiple students and researchers (up to 20) will have simultaneous access to Watson. We know that Watson will become a critical new resource to boost the world-class research and education taking place at Rensselaer in computer science, cognitive science, and many other disciplines involving cognitive computing.

Along with faculty researchers and graduate students, undergraduate students will work directly with the Watson system, as well. This experience will help to prepare our students for future leadership in high-impact, high-value careers in the rapidly expanding fields related to computer science, and in computational science and engineering, broadly writ.

We truly are grateful to IBM for bringing Watson to us, and for enabling us to put it to work on behalf of our faculty and students. IBM is a visionary, globally leading company, and this week will receive the National Medal of Technology for the work of an IBM team (in conjunction with Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center) that developed the laser that is the basis for Lasik eye surgery.  The company also has been the world leader in patents issued – for over a decade.  Importantly for Rensselaer, IBM has always been a visionary, supportive partner with us.  We are pleased and humbled to be the first institution of higher education to put Watson to work in academia.

We look forward to continuing to work together to make new breakthroughs on the frontiers of science and engineering, and to find new ways to prepare our students for careers of leadership and distinction. I am confident that, together, we will find yet new ways to harness the vast power of computation to help “change the world.”

From our partnership with IBM that launched our CCNI supercomputing center – the Computational Center for Nanotechnology Innovations – to the ongoing support for all that we do here, we cannot allow this moment to pass without turning to Dr. John E. Kelly, III of IBM, and his associates, to express our warm and heartfelt gratitude for all that they have done and continue to do to make Rensselaer an ever better place to study, learn and discover.  Let me pause to thank Mr. John E. Kolb, our Vice President for Information Services and Technology and CIO – for his and his associates’ hard work in helping bring this capability to Rensselaer.  But, opportunities such as this do not happen on their own – without a key partner to drive them.

So, now let me introduce the man who leads the enterprise that developed Watson, and the man who made this event possible. Dr. John E. Kelly is IBM senior vice president and director of research.  In this position, he directs the worldwide operations of IBM Research, with approximately 3,000 technical employees at nine laboratories, in seven countries around the world, and helps to guide IBM’s overall technical strategy. Dr. Kelly is well known for his work in stimulating innovation in information technology, and bringing those innovations into the marketplace.

I am proud to note that John Kelly received his M.S degree in physics from Rensselaer in 1978, and his doctorate in materials engineering from Rensselaer two years later.

Dr. Kelly has been a close partner -- as we have developed an ever closer relationship between Rensselaer and IBM as we pursue common goals in the use of computational power. Two years ago, we were pleased to welcome him to the Rensselaer Board of Trustees, where he serves with great thoughtfulness and distinction.

Please welcome our very good friend, Dr. John E. Kelly, III.


Source citations are available from the division of Strategic Communications and External Relations, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Statistical data contained herein were factually accurate at the time it was delivered. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute assumes no duty to change it to reflect new developments.

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