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UConn students pitch ‘Watson’ applications

Stephen Gold, IBM worldwide marketing director, and UConn School of Business Dean John A. Elliott speak in between student presentations.

The University of Connecticut has teamed with IBM Corp. to explore business applications for the artificial intelligence technology developed as part of Big Blue’s Watson initiative.

Students in UConn’s School of Business worked in teams to develop pitches, which they presented to a group of IBM directors and engineers Dec. 5 at the school’s Stamford campus.

The proposals, which ranged from applications in the pharmaceutical industry to roles at call centers, were a part of a semester-long course developed as part of a partnership between UConn and IBM, which is based in Armonk, N.Y.

Made famous by its appearance on “Jeopardy!” in 2011, Watson is a cognitive computer system that can process natural human language, generate hypotheses and use evidence-based learning.

UConn and IBM have had a long relationship of student research and projects, and the course is a testament to the business school’s commitment to providing students with messy, real-world learning opportunities, said John A. Elliott, dean of UConn’s School of Business.

“It’s all a part of our purposeful focus on a larger corporate partnership,” Elliott said.

“Something like this is really an opportunity to move from a well-educated individual with fundamental book learning, to an experienced young professional who’s taken on knotty complex problems,” he said.

IBM will review the students’ written reports at the conclusion of the course and decide from there what they’d like to do with the students’ suggestions. It’s possible the company will request another course to be offered to follow up on the research. At the event, IBM representatives said they were very impressed with the presentation and how well the students were able to fulfill their requests.

One application students suggested was using Watson’s technology as a solution to the patent cliff in the pharmaceutical industry. A large number of patented drugs are scheduled to expire in 2013, and nine out of 10 drugs fail to be commercialized, said Robert Johnson, a business administration undergraduate.

Johnson said it costs $1.3 billion on average to develop a drug and the one in 10 that does go to market has to recover the costs of the nine that didn’t.

As a result, it’s becoming very popular for pharmaceutical companies to reposition drugs to serve different aliments than the drug’s original purpose. For instance, Depakote, which was developed to control seizures, is now used to treat bipolar disorder.

Using Watson’s technology to search medical indexes and documents, Johnson said it would be much easier and faster for companies to find safe and profitable repositioning opportunities. Additionally, Watson could be used to search if patents already exist on the drugs, mitigating potential lawsuits.

A second application the students presented was using Watson to make call centers more efficient and successful.

Half of all service calls are unresolved or need to be escalated, said Anna Jakubek, a master’s of business administration student. And customers who exert a lot of effort into a call are 96 percent more likely to be disloyal.

If an agent used Watson to look up customer’s answers, however, Jakubek said a call center would be able to improve its consistency, save time, reduce training costs and provide additional cross- and up-selling opportunities.

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