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A Computer Goes to College

February 7, 2013
The incoming freshman at RPI.

The incoming freshman at RPI.

A college education is something many parents desire for their children. It’s almost expected that all school children in the US will grow up aiming to attend some university. Not all kids will follow this path, and whether it’s the best choice for most of them is debatable. Apparently IBM thinks it’s little one is ready to go as well.

Watson supercomputer is being sent to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York to go to school. In it’s quest to defeat the Jeopardy champions, this type of computer was fed a tremendous amount of information from general sources. A clone of Watson received specialized medical data to help doctors diagnose patients better. This last incarnation of the computer system will be fed information from various researchers in different fields at RPI. What will come out of this, experiment nobody knows.

The Watson system going to RPI seems modest in size, with 15TB of storage reported. That seems small. The specs posted for the Jeopardy system include 2880 cores and 16TB of RAM. That’s not the size of system many of us every get to work with. The software, called DeepQA, is the core of the system and allows it to process vast amounts of data and make connections between the data to answer questions.

2880 cores is a lot, as is 16TB of RAM, but there are SQL Server installations that are getting close, with 2TB of RAM. Some Parallel Data Warehouse installations with hundreds of cores. I can foresee a day when Watson-sized systems are more common. Perhaps we’ll even get a Watson version that helps us better analyze the data we work with today, a version that works closely with the DBA-turned-data-analyst to extract information from the petabytes of storage we’ll have accumulated.

Steve Jones


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