By Dave Chesney
The seniors in my Software Engineering class this year learned a lot about computer programming, but they also achieved something that wasn’t in the syllabus. They made a difference in one young person’s life. They designed apps aimed at enabling a 13-year-old Michigan girl with cerebral palsy to achieve her dream of playing games with her classmates.
For several years, I have collaborated with doctors at the University of Michigan Health Systems to identify disabilities that show the potential of being addressable in some way by assistive technologies. Then, in each course, my students take on the real-world challenge of helping children with those disabilities live better. It’s inspiring for the students and, potentially, good for society.
In preparation for the fall semester, 2014, we’re doing things a bit differently. We’re going to be using IBM’s Watson as our primary tool for building applications. So, instead of identifying a disability and then finding technologies that can help overcome it, we’re starting with the technology and finding ways to use it.
This is part of a program that IBM announced today aimed at teaching students all around the United States about cognitive computing—a new generation of technologies that promises to benefit businesses, individuals and society. Faculty members at seven universities will be teaching their students how to use Watson. In addition to Michigan, they include Carnegie Mellon University, The Ohio State University, New York University, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, University of California Berkeley, and the University of Texas in Austin.
All of the courses are designed to be hands on and project based, like mine at Michigan. Each class will get access to version of Watson delivered as a cloud service. Classmates will split up into teams, identify uses for Watson, develop apps and also write business plans—as if they’re entrepreneurs creating startups. Think of it as Silicon Valley in the classroom.
I’m planning on going a step further and actually helping students to launch their own companies after they graduate using the resources available at the University of Michigan.
Watson represents a new departure for computing and for society. Cognitive machines are capable of learning, reasoning and interacting with people in ways that are more natural to us. I’m just beginning to learn what Watson can do, but I understand that it’s being adapted to assist people in a variety of situations—from physicians making treatment decisions to people shopping for camping equipment online. I believe that Watson’s ability to help people navigate through complexities has great potential for people with disabilities. It we can match it up with the right challenge, then magic can happen.
Students love the idea. My fall semester course was oversubscribed almost immediately. Seventy students are signed up and there are another 50 or so on the waiting list.
I always set high expectations for my students. At a minimum, I want them to have experiences and learn things that will stick with them for the rest of their lives. At a maximum, I hope that we’ll come up with something new that can have—and does have—a profound impact on people’s lives. That’s my hope with Watson.
To learn more about the new era of computing, read Smart Machines: IBM’s Watson and the Era of Cognitive Systems.