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Scottish university and IBM partner to drive cognitive computing

The University of Aberdeen has become the first Scottish university to partner with IBM to offer students and staff access to its cognitive computing technology.

The partnership will provide students at the university’s department of computing science the opportunity to gain hands-on experience of IBM’s system and providing exciting research opportunities for the university.

Watson represents a new era of computing based on its ability to interact in natural language, process vast amounts of disparate data, and learn from each interaction. Through its partnership with IBM, Aberdeen is one of only four UK institutions with access to the Watson Engagement Advisor solution.

It will initially be used by students undertaking the Department of Computing Science’s Semantic Web Engineering module taught by Dr Jeff Z Pan, leader of the department’s knowledge technology group. It will eventually be offered more widely across a range of relevant programmes.

Academics at the university are already undertaking cognitive computing research using Watson, collaborating with a team of IBM scientists on the EU Marie Curie K-Drive project. The project is investigating ways of understanding and utilising big data and knowledge graphs for applications, such as those in the treatment of cancers. The results of the work will also form the basis of new research proposals from the University for the EU Horizon 2020 Programme.

Dr Pan, who coordinates the K-Drive project, said: ‘With access to Watson we are providing the next generation of students with experience of the latest techniques in cognitive computing, which puts them in a strong position when it comes to a career in the industry.’

Dr Pan stated: ‘The partnership with IBM is an exciting opportunity to advance our research in this area.  Cognitive computing is empowering human decision-making processes by understanding and exploiting data which is structured and unstructured, and our research is focused on how to make the best use of both types of data.’

IBM first announced the cognitive computing system Watson in 2009 when it announced that it would take on the human opponents on the US game show Jeopardy. Since then the company has integrated a number of tools and setup partnerships with centres of research and hospitals to develop its predictive capabilities in a wide range of industries including computer science and healthcare.

IBM has shown a specific focus in the development of Watson for healthcare applications, in 2014 IBM and The New York Genome Centre (NYGC) announced an initiative to accelerate genomic medicine with the use of IBM’s Watson. IBM and NYGC tested a Watson prototype, designed specifically for genomic research, as a tool to help oncologists deliver more personalised care to cancer patients.

In 2015 IBM announced its plans to acquire the medical imaging group, Merge Healthcare, for $1 billion. This combined Watson’s Watson’s advanced image analytics and cognitive capabilities with data and images obtained from Merge Healthcare’ medical imaging management system – with the hope developing systems that could be used for personalised or even predictive healthcare services. The Merge Healthcare acquisition was completed in October 2015.

IBM academic initiative leader, Paul Fryer, said: ‘Cognitive represents an entirely new model of computing that includes a range of technology innovations in analytics, natural language processing and machine learning.  The collaboration between IBM and the University of Aberdeen, which builds on a long-standing relationship, aims to help nurture the next generation of innovators and is the first initiative of this type in Scotland.’

While this is the first unversity in Scotland to partner with IBM, it has already set up a partnership with a major research centre in the UK, as reported by Scientific Computing World. In June 2015, the UK government unveiled plans for a £313 million partnership with IBM to boost big data research in the UK.

Following an initial investment of £113 million to expand the Hartree Centre at Daresbury over the next five years, IBM also agreed to provide further support to the project with a package of technology and onsite expertise worth up to £200 million. This included 24 IBM researchers, stationed at the Hartree Centre, to work side-by-side with existing researchers.


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