Just call this machine “Doc” Watson

A growing number of technologists around the world say that computers with superhuman intelligence are more than three decades away.

Try telling that to trivia champs Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter, who lost to IBM’s Watson supercomputer in a special, three-day Jeopardy! competition this week.

IBM, which partners with Northeastern on several global initiatives, made Wednesday’s finale an event on campus, featuring a public viewing in the Curry Student Center that brought out a crowd of 200. They watched the smooth-talking machine—the first computer able to understand natural language—defeat the game-show geeks, who have won more than $6 million on the popular question-answer quiz show.

As part of the evening, IBM researchers discussed Watson’s potential to transform the health-care industry. The talk turned to action on Thursday, when IBM announced a partnership with Nuance Communications to develop a program using Watson’s analytical computing system to help doctors instantly diagnose patients.

“It’s not about the game show,” Peter Lynt, a 1983 graduate of the College of Business Administration and IBM’s general manager of global business process delivery, told people who attended the event. “It’s about what we will do to bring this technology to industries.”

Watson, which runs on 90 servers and can access 200 million pages of content, now fills a large room. In five years, it will be about the size of a smart phone, said Lynt.

Students echoed Lynt’s optimism about the impact of supercomputers on society. Matt Strax-Haber, a junior computer science major, said computers like Watson will make people’s jobs easier, not obsolete.

He pointed to the printing press as an example of technology that transformed the way we do business and opened up new opportunities for innovation.

“These computers could change things dramatically and affect the market,” said Strax-Haber, a market-engineering co-op for IBM’s office in Littleton, Mass. “They have the potential to help humanity as a whole.”

From tax software to smart phones, he said, “our usage has already improved our lives greatly.”

The Northeastern/ IBM partnership includes an innovative international co-op program that places students in project management roles at IBM facilities in the Philippines, Argentina and Costa Rica, and an online MBA program Northeastern designed for IBM employees in India and China.