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Watson's the name, data's the game

Katherine Noyes | Oct. 10, 2016
For IBM's 'cognitive' AI, Jeopardy was just the beginning

In 2014 IBM established a dedicated Watson Group with a global headquarters in New York City to propel and commercialize the technology. A Boston-based health unit and an IoT headquarters in Germany followed the next year. Today, Watson is available to partners and developers via the cloud and some 30 application programming interfaces (APIs). Hundreds of IBM clients and partners across 36 countries and more than 29 industries now have active projects underway with Watson, IBM says.

The Watson developer community represents more than 550 developers across 17 industries and disciplines, and more than 100 of them have already introduced commercial "cognitive" apps, products and services as a result. More than a million developers globally are using the Watson Developer Cloud on IBM's Bluemix platform, meanwhile, to pilot, test and deploy new business ideas. IBM has allocated $100 million for venture investments to support this community.

OmniEarth is an environmental analytics company that recently partnered with IBM to leverage Watson’s visual-recognition services to decipher and classify physical features in aerial and satellite images, and it's using those analyses to help tackle California's ongoing drought.

"Fundamentally, we're looking for what we can learn about outdoor water use to anticipate how much water a particular parcel of land might need," said OmniEarth Lead Data Scientist Shay Strong.

It can take inordinate amounts of time and expertise to manually examine aerial photographs and satellite images to identify swimming pools and other pertinent landscape features on a particular lot, Strong said.

Now, OmniEarth uses a variety of machine-learning algorithms to do it -- some home-grown, and some that are part of Watson. (You can test out Watson's vision API for yourself here; OmniEarth's technology can be seen here.) Vast amounts of data are involved -- close to a terabyte for Los Angeles alone, Strong said -- but machine learning speeds up the process enormously. OmniEarth can now process aerial images 40 times faster than it could before, for example, tackling 150,000 images in just 12 minutes rather than several hours.  

"It buys us incredible efficiency," Strong said.

It also enables better planning and budgeting. Whereas previously water districts like the City of Folsom and the East Bay Municipal Water District often used statewide averages to gauge their upcoming needs, OmniEarth's AI-based analyses allow them to create much more accurate forecasts. Watson is also helping regional utilities and conservation groups such as the Inland Empire Utility Agency and the Santa Ana Watershed Project Authority fine-tune their outreach programs to better educate families about modifying their water usage.

Macy's is another recent Watson user. This past summer the retail giant launched a Watson-based web service designed to help customers navigate its stores while they shop.  Delivered through location-based engagement software from IBM partner Satisfi, Macy’s On-Call allows customers to input questions in natural language about each participating store’s unique product assortment, services and facilities and then receive a customized response. Macy’s is currently piloting the new tool in 10 store locations across the United States.


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