IBM believes its Watson supercomputing platform is much more than a gameshow-winning gimmick: its executives are betting very big that the software will fundamentally change how people and industries compute.
In the beginning, IBM assigned 27 core researchers to the then-nascent Watson. Working diligently, those scientists and developers built a tough “Jeopardy!” competitor. Encouraged by that success on live television, Big Blue devoted a larger team to commercializing the technology—a group it made a point of hiding in Austin, Texas, so its members could better focus on hardcore research. After years of experimentation, IBM is now prepping Watson to go truly mainstream.
As part of that upgraded effort, IBM will devote a billion dollars and thousands of researchers to a dedicated Watson Group, based in New York City at 51 Astor Place. The company plans on pouring another $100 million into an equity fund for Watson’s growing app ecosystem.
If everything goes according to IBM’s plan, Watson will help kick off what CEO Ginni Rometty refers to as a third era in computing. The 19th century saw the rise of a “tabulating” era: the birth of machines designed to count. In the latter half of the 20th century, developers and scientists initiated the “programmable” era—resulting in PCs, mobile devices, and the Internet. The third (potential) era is “cognitive,” in which computers become adept at understanding and solving, in a very human way, some of society’s largest problems.
Watson “is not a super search engine,” Rometty told reporters and customers gathered for an IBM presentation on Watson in New York City. Not only can the platform find the proverbial needle in a haystack—it can make all sorts of other inferences about the haystack itself. Watson is reportedly adept with unstructured data such as images and unfiltered Web content; developers and end-users can interact with it using natural language. “It understands the implications of your language,” Rometty added, “and will ask you clarification questions back.”
Rometty believes Watson will end up operating in four distinct areas: “Transformational Solutions,” which will fundamentally alter industries such as healthcare by applying the platform’s massive analytical abilities to some very big problems; “Enterprise Solutions,” or replicable and scalable solutions for business issues; “Watson Ecosystem,” centered on the Watson developer cloud and associated APIs; and “Watson Foundation,” a portfolio of analytics capabilities.
“A new era of machine-human collaboration… is dawning now,” she added.
In relatively low-key ways, Watson has already made advances in those areas. IBM unveiled the Watson Developers Cloud, which features tools for building Watson-powered apps, in November. In the beginning of 2013, the company 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. Future projects include call centers, in which Watson will analyze data and patterns, using those insights to advise customer representatives on how to best handle customer queries.
IBM is betting heavily on Watson’s natural-language facility to help with the platform’s adoption. Businesses will be more inclined to use the platform if users need to merely type a question in natural language in order to receive answer. Watson Discovery Advisor is a new platform that will digest and analyze data in rapid time.
But no matter how well Watson can read, understand and analyze, the platform will need to earn its keep. Will IBM’s clients pay lots of money for all that cognitive power?