circuit board

by Joshua Whitney Allen

IBM supports world R&D community’s ‘Battle of the Brains’

Published May 26, 2015


Each year, going back to 1977, exceptionally smart students are taken by the promise of competition and enter the International Collegiate Programming Contest. It is the Champions League of computer science. Teams survive local and regional rounds to qualify for the finals, which were held this year in Morocco; over 38,000 people around the world joined the 2015 contest, solving problems, enduring “relentlessly strict” judging, and enjoying IBM’s enthusiastic sponsorship of the ICPC.

Run by the Association for Computing Machinery, the ICPC event is the oldest programming contest in the world. Its problems would baffle most laypeople; its spirit full of developer humor, the ICPC is a testing ground of generations of programmers, researchers, and scholars. It is an opportunity for career-minded tech pros to get noticed by employers and a public relations sure thing for benefactors. For IBM, the contest is a continuation of the company’s involvement in research at an influential level.

According to a statement, the ACM counts more than 100,000 members and “supports the professional growth of its members by providing opportunities for life-long learning, career development, and professional networking.” A centerpiece of the ACM’s support of the research community, this year’s finals were held at Mohammed V University, Al Akhawayn University, Mundiapolis University, and the Moroccan arm of the ACM.

Headquartered at Baylor University and known as the “Battle of the Brains,” the ICPC challenged 128 university teams to solve a series of complex real-world problems in just five hours. A Russian institution, St. Petersburg National Research University of IT, Mechanics and Optics, successfully solved all 13 problems to earn victory.

The annual event is an example of IBM’s ongoing relationship with the global computer science community. The energy and talent abundant in this population of researchers is crucial for tech companies to harness. These students and their mentors are technology’s true innovators, their contributions impactful to IT, defense, research and development, biotech, transit, and retail; their ideas enjoyed, but widely overlooked by consumers.

Through seed opportunities, contests are a way for giants like United Technologies Corporation and General Motors to scan the smartest entry-level candidates and identify the newest concepts that could evolve into market advantage. There is a tournament for every discipline, it seems; sponsors of this year’s FIRST Robotics Competition include NASA and Boeing. Twenty thousand applicants hoped to enter Intel’s 2014 Global Challenge at University of California-Berkeley; the winning team, from Chile, won $50,000 in prize money.

“IBM values this opportunity to assemble the brightest students from the world’s leading universities and expose them to the latest technological innovations,” says Gerald Lane, ACM-ICPC Sponsorship Executive and Director, IBM Open Technologies & IP. “These students are the future leaders of our industry, and we are committed to fostering their development as they prepare to enter the global workforce.”

Squads of three students per school represent the world’s most renowned technical universities, the coaches active faculty members who themselves study obscure and pioneering abstractions. There is obvious brilliance and humor in the arrivals; Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s coach has authored numerous papers, including “Spectral Sparsification of Random-Walk Matrix Polynomials.” The team from Japan’s Kyoto University is nicknamed the Colorful Jumbo Chicken.

The problems are dizzying in their intricacy—and brutally short in the time a team has to solve them. In three seconds, teams must devise a formula to direct ship traffic transiting the Strait of Gibraltar; in two seconds, a team must figure out suitable excavation costs for irrigation channels in Morocco. You get five seconds to plot stock fluctuations, 15 seconds to plot how weather data—from millions of input points around the world—can move to end users faster. Only someone with the mind and discipline—someone immersed since grade school in logic, math, and computing—could hope to formulate these solutions with the requisite speed.

Indeed, such a contest is but one of the ways IBM fosters ideas. According to its site, IBM’s research policies have been driving progress for or more than 60 years. Collaborating with institutions around the world, Big Blue lends its expertise and communications might—and most importantly, its funds—to researchers who would otherwise work on academic budgets and hope to publish their findings in obscure journals. The IBM Research website hosts papers, challenges, keynotes, and presentations from researchers around the world; the ICPC is but one of its interactions with the young and bold.



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