St. Olaf College | News

A summer internship that brings artificial intelligence to (campus) life

St. Olaf College student Mary McManis ’17 (front row, second from left) and other IBM interns pose with one of the company’s robots (center) and Watson (behind them).

From winning Jeopardy to becoming a cancer specialist, IBM’s Watson has already made a name for itself.

The artificial intelligence computer system, which processes information more like a human than a computer, has taken on roles that usually requires the work of hundreds, if not thousands, of people.

And this summer one of the people working with Watson is St. Olaf College student Mary McManis ’17. As part of her internship at the IBM research lab in Austin, Texas, she is “teaching” Watson about the intricacies and inner workings of the higher education system.

The whole purpose, McManis says, is to create a Watson platform that can improve the student experience by answering questions a student might have about a school, its campus services, campus life, etc. And this is not the same as searching with Google or Yahoo.

“Where search engines provide you with sources that probably have what you are looking for and require a lot of reading to find your answer, Watson provides answers directly in a user-friendly, conversational format,” McManis says.

Bringing that conversational ability to Watson is where McManis plays a significant role. She is working in the Watson Engagement Advisor, a software that has an in-depth understanding of context and dialogue. This system automates customer interaction by answering questions in natural language with informed and evidence-based reasoning.

McManis is currently starting to develop Watson’s comprehension of the higher education system. This is done through a process where she and the other interns gather questions a person might ask in a normal conversation. Then they establish a set of knowledge — or answers — that Watson would read, interpret, and use to create hypotheses. Watson then scores its confidence on each hypothesis before providing a conversational response that was configured by McManis and the other interns.

And Watson is not a system that is still in the testing stage.

“For starters, Watson is in the kitchen, health care, medicine, banks, and robots. Higher education is another great avenue. Hopefully we can keep making cognitive computing more accessible because this is a technology that can really make a difference in our world,” says McManis, who is majoring in English with a management studies concentration.

Coming from a family of engineers and growing up in Silicon Valley — home to many of the world’s largest high-tech corporations — has given McManis a deep appreciation for technology. She’s put that passion, together with the communication and teamwork skills she’s honed in her management studies classes at St. Olaf, to good use in what she calls a “once-in-a-lifetime” internship experience.

“I only just finished my third week, but it has been a great experience and I am meeting a lot of new people in all parts of IBM,” McManis says.