Jeopardy champion Watson is making IBM as sexy to work for as Apple, Google or Facebook.
By raising IBM's profile among students at technology programs at universities such as MIT and CalTech, Watson will likely help IBM better compete for talent against the Silicon Valley companies that are at the top of the list for engineering graduates.
"It's a very clever idea from a marketing and recruiting standpoint," said Allen Delattre, global managing director of the technology practice for Los Angeles-based executive recruitment firm Korn Ferry International.
Watson, a computer that can answer questions posed in natural human language, appeared on Jeopardy this week, where it bested two of the show's former champions -- a technological tour de force, said experts in artificial intelligence. The machine was developed in collaboration with eight universities, including MIT and Carnegie Mellon.
Until Watson's appearance on the show, Ajai Karthikeyan, 21, a senior at Georgia Tech from Dubai majoring in computer science, hadn't considered IBM as a potential employer. While still not his focus, "I'd love working with people over there who are working on hard problems," said Karthikeyan.
Watson's TV debut was coordinated with visits by IBM to 58 college campuses across the country for demonstrations of the technology and screenings of the show -- as well as free pizza. More than 10,000 students and faculty attended the "Watson Watches" parties.
"I'm expecting an enormous spike in interest in the next eight-to-ten months," said Jim Corgel, general manager of academic initiatives at IBM who leads the company's on-campus recruitment efforts. He got a surge of phone calls and emails from IBM campus liaisons following each event. "The number one question [they got] was, 'How do I get to work on Watson?'," said Corgel.
College students are also reaching out to the Watson team directly.
"Kids are so turned on by this, I've gotten so many emails and calls from them," said David Ferrucci, chief scientist at IBM on the Watson project.
Following the computer's win, many party attendees said they had been converted into aspiring IBM-ers. Laura Conwill, 20, a junior from Carlton, Ore., majoring in computer science at CalTech, said her image of IBM changed after speaking with a Watson researcher.
"The Watson project is definitely helping to increase their [IBM's] name recognition," said Conwill, who now lists IBM among Google, Facebook and Microsoft as places she may want to work upon graduation in June 2012.
IBM, which was granted more patents last year than Intel, Hewlett-Packard, Texas Instruments, Apple and Google combined, already had an "extremely strong reputation" among established engineers, said Delattre of Korn Ferry. "This could help them with a younger crowd. This reinforces [IBM's] reputation as a great computing company."
Jason Tilley, 21, a senior at Georgia Tech who lists IBM among top prospective employers post-Watson, said he was surprised to learn that IBM is a top patent-getter. IBM has been granted more patents in the U.S. than any other company each year for the past ten years -- and set a record in 2010 with 5,896 patents granted, nearly doubling its 2001 number of 3,453, according to IFI Claims Patent Services, a research firm based in Wilmington, Del.
"They [IBM] appear to have an entire department devoted to what I am interested in," said Tilley, a computer science major from Dallas, who hopes to do research in artificial intelligence and natural language recognition upon graduation in December, precisely the fields in which Watson has wowed the world.
Experts in artificial intelligence and natural language processing praised the Watson team's achievement in building a computer that could win against humans at Jeopardy.
"[Watson's] machine intelligence was, quite frankly, more than impressive. It was amazing," said David Bailey, chief technologist for the computational research division of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and a researcher in highly parallel computing.
IBM can now brag that it accomplished something that one of its rivals, a company whose name is now synonymous with searching the Internet using typed human queries, hasn't done.
"Even Google can't do natural language processing in real-time," said Vipul Sharma, a U.S. patent holder in machine learning and a software engineer who uses artificial intelligence to analyze data for the San Francisco Internet startup Eventbrite.
Watson has established the company as the leader in artificial intelligence, Sharma said.
"Watson makes me think that IBM is a company that's not necessarily into immediate profit and I love seeing stuff like that," said Kenneth Stuart, 21, a senior from Milledgeville, Ga., majoring in computer science and electrical engineering at Georgia Tech.
Watson may have piqued students' interest in working for IBM. But can it do homework?
Putting it diplomatically, Stuart ventured, "I can't imagine what academia is going to be like if you have a computer that can answer any question for you."
He now puts IBM at the top of the list when it comes to potential employers.
Write to Jeremy Greenfield, Shareen Pathak and John Shinal