IBM’s Watson supercomputing platform is already famous for its Jeopardy-playing skills, and could earn a place in medical history as a weapon against cancer, but Big Blue’s plans don’t end there: soon third-party developers will have the opportunity to develop apps that leverage Watson’s particular brand of “cognitive computing.”
The new Watson Developers Cloud will feature tools for building Watson-powered apps, which developers will have a choice of hosting either on IBM’s cloud or their own setup. Those tools will include access to Watson’s API, development toolkit, and educational materials. IBM will pair the Developers Cloud with the IBM Watson Content Store, which will feature software from third parties.
As part of its announcement, IBM highlighted Watson-powered apps built by Fluid Retail (namely the Fluid Expert Personal Shopper, which relies on preexisting user data filtered through algorithms to make smarter shopping recommendations), MD Buyline (which has built a medical research assistant, dubbed “Hippocrates powered by IBM Watson”), and Welltok (creator of an app that exploits Watson’s learning abilities to guide users through daily health decisions). Given how IBM views medical and retail as key verticals for Watson’s growth, it’s unsurprising that those three apps earned a shout-out—but will other companies and developers rush to embrace the platform?
By opening Watson to developers, IBM is clearly attempting to transform its supercomputing baby into more of a general-use cloud platform on the level of what Amazon, Salesforce and other firms already offer. IBM executives likely hope that the Watson brand, and the computing power that goes with it, can help its offering stand out in a crowded Infrastructure-as-a-Service (IaaS) and Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS) environment.
Even if this developer-ecosystem effort doesn’t succeed, Watson probably has a future with hospitals and health-insurance providers. In February, for example, IBM joined with WellPoint and Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City to train Watson in processing and interpreting oncology data. As a part of that effort, clinicians and other human trainers spent nearly 15,000 hours “teaching” Watson how to interpret clinical information; they also fed the supercomputer more than 600,000 pieces of medical evidence, along with two million pages of text from 42 medical journals and clinical trials.
IBM is also working on two new projects in collaboration with the Cleveland Clinic Lerner College of Medicine of Case Western Reserve University: WatsonPaths and Watson EMR Assistant. WatsonPaths details how Watson uses structured and unstructured datasets to arrive at a particular result; Watson EMR Assistant analyzes electronic medical records, leveraging Watson’s natural language processing in order to make better sense of sometimes-conflicting data.
But given the increasing prevalence of cloud-development platforms, IBM would probably prefer Watson to succeed on a broader level as an app powerhouse.