U-M, IBM Partner on $4.5M Development of Conversational Computer

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The University of Michigan in Ann Arbor has launched a $4.5 million collaboration with IBM to develop a computer system that acts as an academic adviser, answering questions and interacting with students.

"By partnering with the University of Michigan, we have an enormous opportunity to apply U-M Artificial Intelligence Lab technologies in new ways and transform human-machine communication,” says David Nahamoo, chief technologist for conversational systems at IBM, called IBM Watson. “This collaboration marks the next chapter in a longstanding relationship between the university and IBM to place the power of cognitive technologies into the hands of the next generation of thinkers.”

Nahamoo says through the partnership, called Project Sapphire, IBM and the U-M Artificial Intelligence Lab will develop a cognitive system that offers advice such as course selection, career advice, and extracurricular recommendations to undergraduate computer science and engineering majors. To do this, Nahamoo says the team will capture and annotate large volumes of human-to-human conversations between undergraduates and their advisors.

“Human-to-machine interactions, similar to human-to-human conversations, are rarely confined to one question and one answer,” Nahamoo says. “They involve multiple turns of a conversation with responses that can be imprecise and unclear, making it difficult to simulate the human experience.”

He says the system could be up and running within the next two years.

"What we are building has the potential to revolutionize how we interact with our computers and other devices such as our cars and our appliances,” says Satinder Singh Baveja, professor of computer science and engineering at U-M and director of the Artificial Intelligence Lab. “These conversational systems become cognitive advisers that can assist us in a variety of personal, professional, and enterprise tasks, such as advising for personal finance, helping employees in scheduling meetings and travel arrangements, and providing technical support to customers of an enterprise.”

U-M has partnered with IBM in the past on other initiatives. In October, IBM Research assisted the U-M Solar Car Team, predicting weather conditions such as cloud cover and wind patterns at the World Solar Challenge in Australia. 

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