Executive Insights: Talking to Aaron Baughman about the Artificial Intelligence Awards

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The Academy of Technology’s “Executive Insights” series provides thought leadership from executives and senior members of IBM with the goal of encouraging the exchange of ideas and information. 



Aaron Baughman
Distinguished Engineer
Master Inventor
AI and Emerging Technologies Lead





The Global Annual Achievement Awards for Artificial Intelligence have named IBM as a winner in the area of AI Customer Application Awards for Best AI for Gaming and Virtual Reality. What can you tell us about the products/services that are being recognized, and how they were developed? How were you a part of the work that’s being recognized?

Aaron: I have the pleasure with working with a world class team within IBM iX Live Events and IBM Corporate Marketing. We work for customers such the US Open, Wimbledon, the Masters, ESPN Fantasy Football and the GRAMMYs.

Being inducted into the AI Hall of Fame as a team is a truly great recognition for our outstanding work within AI. Along the way, we have won two global awards in AI that contributed to our induction. First, our AI Highlights work won the best use of AI for automation in 2018. This project was about automatically processing live streaming videos of golf, tennis and soccer and creating highlight clips. Indicators such as crowd noise, commentator tone, player gesture and game context gave us an unbiased overall excitement for video segments. In fact, this project won the IBM Technical Corporate award for the 2018 cycle.

Second, we won a global AI award for best AI in games and virtual reality in 2019 for our novel ESPN Fantasy Football work. This project also won an IBM Technical Corporate award for the 2019 cycle.

This project was a lot of fun and impactful for millions of people around the world. We partnered with ESPN to use an enterprise-grade AI capability to help Fantasy Football team owners evaluate their players. Ultimately, we wanted to build an AI system to make the game even more compelling, understandable, social and fun.

The fantasy platform that we built aligns the real-world statistical performance of athletes to fantasy scoring and has steadily risen in popularity to millions of players each day spending a total 7.7 billion minutes each year playing the game. We worked with ESPN to bring a novel AI-based experience that utilizes video, podcasts and news stories from over 100,000 sources to assist each user with making day-to-day decisions. Each day, we handled millions of users and served over 2 billion pieces of AI content! Excitingly our work is protected by several patents that was filed with the USPTO. For those interested, there’s more to learn about our system.

IBM may not be the first name that comes to mind for gaming, VR, or sports and entertainment. What can you tell us about how the company is working in this area? What are some achievements we may not be aware of, or exiting innovations you’ve seen?

Aaron: I have to take a moment to mention that the interest in our work has been tremendous. Every single day during the fantasy football season, we average serving 250 TB of AI content from over 2 billion hits! We even had 2 fantasy football celebrity leagues use our system to showcase its capabilities. For example, we had Bonnie Bernstein, Field Yates, John Urschel, Stephanie Bell, Daniel Dopp, Jerry Ferrara, Charles Woodson, Baron Davis, Michael Greenberg, Justin Tuck and several IBMers play in head-to-head matches. AI was a complementary piece of technology that helped each fantasy football team owner set their lineups each week.

From a technology perspective, I am increasingly excited about our upcoming work around fanless experiences. The COVID-19 pandemic is accelerating the importance of AI and digital experiences to keep us connected in different social ways. Now, we have a big opportunity to use AI to help us enjoy sporting and entertainment events from a distance. We are seeing the intersection of science and creativity at its best. In reality, many of these systems will persist into our new normal way of life.

What do you see the as the future of AI? What are some of the interesting areas of exploration? What are you particularly excited about?
Aaron: I can think of two other exciting areas for AI. The first is being able to solve large combinatorial problems on edge devices. This personalized AI system would run on user devices and find tradeoffs between decisions that have a cost and reward function. For example, with fantasy sports trading, we could help people determine how to make their roster better through trades. However, trades have many possibilities and are relative to the rules of the league they are in as well as subjective opinions from each team owner.

Another exciting area is natural language generation. We are moving up the technology stack that includes fundamental NLP operators, summarization, computational argumentation, structured data to prose and narration generation. With projects such as DeepQA (Jeopardy!) and Project Debater, are on the cusp of a partnership between human and machine for cohesive story telling. You can read about how some of the technology was used at the GRAMMYs.

What else do you think we should know about AI, or this award?

Aaron: The Awards.AI organization is the first and biggest global annual awards for AI. Voters and evaluators are selected from around the world to pick winners in each category. Year over year, the number of submissions for each category is increasing with high levels of competition. I am personally proud to have been part of the team that has won twice and then been inducted into the AI Hall of Fame. The group of folks that participate and compete for awards is outstanding and includes startups to large enterprises. Getting a recognition like this really frames the impact that we as a team make on the world. I could not be prouder of our team.

Meet Aaron Baughman

Aaron K. Baughman is a Distinguished Engineer and Master Inventor within IBM GBS Interactive Experience focused on Artificial Intelligence and Emerging Technologies. He has worked with ESPN Fantasy Football, NFL’s Atlanta Falcons, The Masters, USGA, Grammy Awards, Tony Awards, Wimbledon, USTA, US Open, Roland Garros, Australian Open, Jeopardy!, confidential US government agencies and Indonesia water company PDAM.

He was the principal data scientist for AI Video Highlights that won the IBM Corporate Technical Award and Best of IBM. Further, he worked on Predictive Cloud Computing for sports that has been published in IEEE and INFORMS. He was a technical Lead on a DeepQA (Jeopardy!) project and an original member of the IBM Research DeepQA embed team. Early in his career, he worked on biometric, software engineering and search projects for US classified government agencies. He has published numerous papers and a Springer book.


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