IBM/Watson Case Competition

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On Friday, March 28, students from all over QUEST gathered in Van Munching Hall to kick off the first IBM – Watson Case Competition on the East Coast. Teams didn’t know much going into it other than that they would be working in some form with Watson the supercomputer, known to many as the computerized star of Jeopardy. “My expectations of the competition going into it were high.” said Jason Rubin (Q21), member of the winning “Team Sherlock” along with Praneet Puppala (Q22), Jessica Manzione (Q22), Yash Mehta (Q22), and Brendan Rowan (Q22). “I knew QUEST was built from an IBM initiative, and that they had strong relations. A high-quality program like QUEST, with a large and highly-reputable company like IBM, would definitely provide us with a great opportunity.”

The event on Friday began with introductions from several IBM representatives to provide background: the goal was to find a new and innovative use for the Watson Engagement Advisor, which breaks down natural language questions like “What does the housing market look like near me?” into key words the computer can understand, and then returns to the user the most relevant articles or information from its database. The WEA is already in use by some companies, and each individual company that uses it can populate their WEA database in a different way.

Over the course of the next day and a half, teams worked furiously on brainstorming ideas, refining them with available mentors from both QUEST and IBM and then distilling them into final pitches for Sunday morning. For some, the hardest part was just settling on an idea. According to Praneet Puppala, after Team Sherlocks initial listing of many different ideas, “we gauged their impact, and then chose an idea that we all were excited about and also had potential for large impact.” That idea was HomeWiz, an application for Home Depot that users can access in-store in order to help them pick the best advice, tutorials, supplies for DIY home projects. Once materials are identified, users would be able buy them straight through the Engagement Advisor. The application could be applied to anything ranging from simple repairs to more involved installations and projects.

Several seasoned case competitors within the teams commented on the uniqueness of the weekend-long Watson competition. “It was very different from other case competitions in which I have competed with companies such as Unilever and PwC,” said Jessica Manzione, from Team Sherlock. “We only had three days to think of an idea and create a presentation, when most case competitions provide a few weeks. This forced us to work harder and more efficiently.” Some participants likened the case competition to a hackathon, which can run for several hours or several days straight through. It seems only fitting that the first QUEST-only case competition combines aspects of both business and tech events.

Overall, the teams came away from the event having learned something they hadn’t known before, whether that is about Watson technology, case competitions, or something a bit more general. Puppala said of the overall experience, “As a computer science major and someone that loves to learn and know about the coolest tech products out there, I really liked learning about Watson Engagement Advisor and its capabilities. I loved working with my team and the mentors available at the competition who gave us some great advice that we could use not just for this competition, but also in our futures.”

The case competition may have also sparked new inspiration in more than a few participants. According to Rubin, “Any problems we currently have that include extremely large amounts of data and the need to make sense of that data, whether it be to better understand something, predict future implications, or produce a personalized solution, will be able to be solved through Watson.” Watson’s potential grows every day as it is tested, applied, and improved. Will a QUEST member be the mastermind behind the next Watson breakthrough?

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