Student Competition Fuels Watson Innovation

By Tiffany Trader

March 12, 2013

In the first-ever West Coast Case Competition, IBM has reached out to the brightest young minds in academia to generate ideas for the next-generation of Watson products and technologies.

More than 100 University of Southern California students came out to compete in the IBM Watson Academic Case Competition last month. The contest asks students to create novel business plans for Watson that solve real-world challenges. The ideas are then presented to IBM business leaders and other industry representatives, who select the most promising candidates.

This is a brainstorming session like none other. Whether it’s driving medical insight, assisting legal casework or transforming the job landscape, these talented students are exploring every lead.

The winning team. (From right to left: Yingchao Lin, Electrical Engineering Economics/Mathematics; Celine Di, Communications and Italian, senior; Sophie Xu, ISE, senior; Daniel Wang, Business Administration, junior.) Credit: Ralph Cheung/The Daily Trojan. Source: Flickr

The session began with a crash course in all things Watson with a focus on its deep analytics capabilities and natural language processing skills, including its unique question-and-answer technology. Students were informed about Watson’s early accomplishments in health care and cancer diagnosis. Then they were broken up into 24 teams and given 48 hours come up with an innovative business plan.

IBM explains that the process was different from most USC competitions because students worked as part of a multi-disciplinary team, with at least one business and one engineering member. This is usually how innovation happens in the real world and it’s how patents are developed at IBM.

The best projects were selected based on four factors:

1. How well the concept and supporting plan articulated and supported the team’s vision.

2. The feasibility of bringing the product or service to market and the supporting elements.

3. The extent the proposed solution leverages Watson’s key capabilities.

4. The team’s presentation.

The eight-judge panel was comprised of experts from industry and academia, including representatives from Bank of America, Ernst & Young, and IBM. Ultimately, three winning teams were selected.

The first prize was awarded for the business plan: Legal Research: Let Watson Do the Discovery for Your Next Legal Case. The winning team asserts that building a legal case requires fast and accurate research, and Watson is well-suited on both counts. Their proposed use case is essentially two-fold: not only can Watson help identify crucial documents that support a case, but it can also forecast the probability of winning a case. As for the benefit to firms: they “can recover time and costs, while delivering better legal outcomes” is how IBM puts it.

According to the second-place finishers, Watson is the ideal technology for the next generation of corporate job training programs. They argue that personalized and evidence-based training will engender better employee satisfaction and lead to improved retention.

The third-place USC team want to tap Watson’s data mining abilities to shine a light on Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), a troubling illness that is often characterized by its invisibility. As outlined in their plan, Watson can sift through mountains of clinical data to help doctors get patients the treatment they deserve.

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