IBM Watson, a super­com­puter that can access 200 mil­lion pages of data to answer ques­tions posed in nat­ural lan­guage, was not designed to win money on quiz shows like “Jeopardy!”

We did this because it was an oppor­tu­nity to advance sci­ence,” said prin­cipal inves­ti­gator David Fer­rucci, the team leader of the Semantic Analysis and Inte­gra­tion Depart­ment at the IBM Thomas J. Watson Research Center. “We believe there is an oppor­tu­nity for this tech­nology to do a better job ana­lyzing nat­ural lan­guage con­tent to solve prob­lems in tech­nical sup­port, gov­ern­ment and medicine.”

Fer­rucci, who called him­self a “geek at heart,” spoke to more than 300 stu­dents, fac­ulty and staff who filled the Curry Stu­dent Center Ball­room on Wednesday evening for the third install­ment in North­eastern University’s Pres­i­den­tial Speaker Series enti­tled Pro­files in Inno­va­tion. The series’ first two speakers were iRobot cofounder and CEO Colin Angle and air­space sculptor Janet Echelman.

Pres­i­dent Joseph E. Aoun hosted the pro­gram, which is designed to bring the world’s most cre­ative minds to campus for con­ver­sa­tions on inno­va­tion and entrepreneurship.

North­eastern, he noted, part­ners with IBM on sev­eral global ini­tia­tives, including an inno­v­a­tive inter­na­tional co-​​op pro­gram that places stu­dents in project-​​management roles at IBM facil­i­ties in Argentina, Costa Rica and the Philip­pines. Over the last five years, more than 60 North­eastern stu­dents have com­pleted co-​​ops with the multi­na­tional tech­nology com­pany, which employees more than 500 alumni.

For his part, Fer­rucci recapped the four-​​year journey of building the one-​​of-​​a-​​kind question-​​answering com­puting system. Last year, Watson passed its first test on “Jeop­ardy!” by beating the quiz show’s top two cham­pions in a tele­vised exhi­bi­tion match.

Fer­rucci said Watson is able to rival a human’s ability to answer open-​​ended ques­tions with speed, accu­racy and con­fi­dence through tem­poral and geospa­tial rea­soning and syn­tactic and semantic analysis of words and phrases.

In the begin­ning, many people had a cloudy under­standing of the supercomputer’s power. “Our audi­ence was bipolar,” Fer­rucci explained. “On one end, people thought, ‘What’s the big deal? Com­puters know every­thing already.’ On the other end, people thought, ‘This is scary. Watson is going to take over the world.’ ”

Fer­rucci would not go that far, but he did say that Watson could rev­o­lu­tionize the health-​​care industry by rapidly ana­lyzing doctor’s notes, pre­scrip­tion his­to­ries, text­books and med­ical jour­nals to help physi­cians make diag­noses and treat­ment recommendations.

There is a lot of valu­able infor­ma­tion in doc­u­ments, and Watson would be able to con­sider many dif­ferent hypotheses based on all of this [data],” Fer­rucci said, noting that the Memo­rial Sloan-​​Kettering Cancer Center has agreed to a part­ner­ship with IBM to develop a clin­ical deci­sion sup­port tool using Watson. “Adapting this tech­nology to new domains is how we will scale this into a prof­itable business.”

After the lec­ture, Fer­rucci fielded ques­tions posed by audi­ence mem­bers and social-​​media users, many of whom watched the hour-​​long event live on Facebook.

Fer­rucci responded to one Twitter user who asked what cre­ating Watson taught him about innovation.

In the space of com­puter sci­ence today, inno­vating requires diver­sity and a lot of dif­ferent per­spec­tives from a lot of dif­ferent people thinking about one problem,” he explained. In IBM’s case, he added, “we needed a cer­tain level of invest­ment in archi­tec­ture and engi­neering in order to exploit that sci­en­tific diversity.”

Prior to Ferrucci’s address, Aoun played a fun video in which Watson was the pres­i­dent of North­eastern and Aoun was a lowly painter with a pas­sion for co-​​op.

In the two-​​minute clip, a news reporter asked the super­com­puter a series of ques­tions for an article on expe­ri­en­tial edu­ca­tion in the age of arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence. One par­tic­ular ques­tion stumped Watson but not Aoun, whose elo­quent and pas­sionate response prompted the super­com­puter to pro­mote him to a more promi­nent role within the university.

Dr. Fer­rucci was telling me that some people are afraid of machines, but you can clearly see that we embrace them,” Aoun said.

We don’t believe they will replace us,” he added. “We believe we’re going to replace them.”