It seemed like any other early Wednesday night as an undergraduate computer science student at Carnegie Mellon: I had programming assignments to start and papers to complete. I thought to myself I should find a quiet, empty room on campus, set up shop, and tackle my work right away. But I couldn’t – instead I headed down to a large auditorium on the fourth floor of the Gates computer science building. As a budding machine learning researcher and avid student of modern artificial intelligence, there was something that I absolutely had to see: a one million dollar match between two grand champion Jeopardy! players and a computer system IBM developed and named Watson.
Watching Watson triumph on Jeopardy! was inspiring: it was the stuff that we computer scientists live for. I clearly remember sitting on the edge of my seat, heart racing, and eyes glued to the screen and thinking, with the slightest hint of jealousy, “I wish that I could work on Watson.” At the conclusion of the match, when Watson showed the world exactly the kind of stellar performance that we can expect from it, I thought, “those are all PhDs who worked on Watson; it will be a very long time before I’m qualified enough to work on Watson.
I am so very glad I was wrong. Half a year after watching that historic match I learned that IBM created it’s first-ever Watson internship program and I, along with nearly 1400 other students applied to participate. Along with 18 others, I was fortunate to be selected and have spent the past 3 months working with IBM developers, researchers and software and business industry experts in IBM’s software group in Littleton, Massachusetts with the goal of commercializing the most advanced, state of the art artificial intelligence system.
As eager as I was to explore Watson, in the beginning I was apprehensive about this internship. My perception of IBM was of a monolithic, sturdy, awesomely gigantic company that made me worry that I was walking straight into the movie Office Space. My first day was filled with so many buzzwords, IBM lingo, protocols, (the occasional IBM joke) and “blue” everything that I thought I should have worn a smock rather than a pair of khaki pants. I thought to myself, “Am I going to be painted over to blend with the rest of this company? Or will I remain an individual?”
After a week of adjusting to the ebb and flow of IBM’s Littleton lab my preconceived notions were dispelled. In practice, I have found that the day to day operations of IBM, from the perspective of a software engineer, are like a small business. Most days, I directly work with less than ten people. As such, I’ve been able to nurture close bonds with my colleagues; this includes full time IBMers as well as fellow interns. Working at IBM has a small business feel coupled with the vast resources of one of the largest businesses in the world – when my team needs a new server to run multiple experiments simultaneously on gigabytes of data, we receive one in less than a day. When I cannot figure out how to solve a problem, and my internet searches turn up nothing, there is an IBMer an email away who is more than willing to help. I have found that working at IBM, you sense your efforts and individualism are being woven into a greater, more complete whole.
At the conclusion of my internship experience, I can reflect and say working on Watson has been an excellent experience. My fears of being painted over and hoarding red staplers were unfounded. In actuality, throughout the summer, I was graced with not only an intellectually stimulating project, but with a group of fantastic, intelligent, and determined colleagues. My mentors were brilliant, helpful, and wise and I am grateful that I have learned so much under their tutelage. My fellow interns have been a blast to work with and we have been able to produce some amazing work in just twelve short weeks. The scope and ambition of the entire IBM Watson division is inspiring; I feel honored to have been one of the inaugural interns working on Watson this summer for a company that has never stopped changing the world.