By Steve Hamm
As the most-attended sporting event to be staged worldwide each year, the US Open Tennis Championships in New York City is an ultra-high-profile venue for demonstrating IBM’s technology chops. Each year since the company became the United States Tennis Association’s technology sponsor in 1990, IBM tech teams have endeavored to outdo the advances they produced the year before. You can see their work as the up-to-date expression each year of what it takes to run a big sports event with the latest technology available. This year is no exception. Cloud computing really came into its own.
But what about next year? This year’s matches have barely begun, yet the tech team is already thinking about how they’ll upstage themselves a year from now.
And it’s no surprise that they’re thinking about Watson, the IBM technology that beat two former grand-champions at the TV quiz show Jeopardy! Watson, a highly sophisticated question-and-answer technology, is one of a number of cognitive computing technologies that IBM scientists and engineers are find homes for in a wide variety of industries–from healthcare and banking to retailing and pharmaceuticals. Why not apply cognitive computing to a mega sporting event?
If you want to learn more about this new era of cognitive computing, download a free chapter of Smart Machines, a book by IBM Research Director John E. Kelly III, at the Web site of Columbia University Press, http://cup.columbia.edu/static/cognitive.
The tech team in Raleigh, N.C., led by Brian O’Connell, conducted a brainstorming session a couple of weeks ago to see how Watson could augment the tennis fan experience. Some of the most intriguing ideas were fed in by team member Aaron Baughman, who spent two years working on the Watson technology when it was still an IBM Research project. Aaron lives in Maryland, but he fired off an email packed with ideas.
Aaron believes that cognitive technologies could utterly transform the US Open, from the way the technology responds to changes in demand for computing resources to the experiences of the fans, commentators and players. “Watson could bring a whole new level of engagement. It’s a cognitive agent that can improve the interactions between all of the people involved and between them and the event itself,” he says.
One idea he threw out is the concept of the Super Commentator. Today, TV commentators at the US Open can tap into IBM’s Keys to the Match technologies to see how players are performing compared to their potential, spot turning points in the play and offer suggestions for how a player can begin to perform better. With Watson, Aaron says, the commentators could go much deeper. They could query Watson in real time about how a certain player or duo has performed in the past. Once Watson provided answers, in a matter of seconds, they could drill down into the evidence to find insights into the players’ performance that bears on the current matches.
He envisions augmenting Watson with predictive analytics technologies the sports events team has created for the US Open. In this future scenario, that technology would help commentators analyze and offer insights about matches with a level of accuracy never possible before.
In fact, there’s already some computing technology at work at the US Open this year. As I wrote at the top, this is the year that cloud computing has really come into its own at the championships. One of the core advantages of cloud computing is that it’s flexible. If you need more or less computing resources at a particular time, the system can be changed quickly in response. It’s even better if you can predict demand in advance. That way, you don’t have to provision too many computers and you don’t get caught flatfooted if there’s a sudden spike in demand for applications and Web pages. For this year’s US Open, the technology team is using technologies for managing unstructured information, borrowed from Watson, to improve the predictive capabilities of the cloud management system.
In an innovation environment like this, cutting-edge technologies feed off each other. It’s an incubator for new ideas that not only can enliven and enrich the fan experience at the US Open, but will doubtless flow into other IBM products and services. So the US Open isn’t just a showcase for IBM technologies; it’s a laboratory for what might come next.