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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

"We have a long list of other potential uses," said Serena Potter, the retailer's group vice president of digital media. "Our ultimate goal is to implement additional cognitive services in the future.”

Other uses of Watson so far include self-driving vehicle "Olli" along with numerous efforts in healthcare and Deep Thunder, a hyperlocal weather-forecasting tool for businesses that stems from IBM's recent acquisition of The Weather Company.

In making all this happen, one of IBM's goals is to shield partners and developers as much as possible from the hairy mathematics that underlie AI. "We want to make this very consumable for developers, and most are not machine-learning experts," Abrams said.

Watson's natural language classifier, for instance, is designed to understand the intent of human statements, and it can be trained for specific purposes. One example might be answering questions at a hotel's front desk, such as via the Watson-based "Connie" robot Hilton Hotels began pilot testing earlier this year. "Watson can understand 'what time are you going to kick me out of here?' as 'what time is checkout time?'" Abrams explained.

Rather than offer the capability in a general-purpose fashion, though, IBM asks developers to upload a spreadsheet listing the human utterances they want Watson to understand. IBM then works behind the scenes to train the model accordingly.

"We've used world-class machine-learning techniques to create the classifier, but I don't want developers to worry about that," Abrams said. "From my chair, Watson is a collection of services that make it possible for developers to build cognitive systems."

Looking ahead, IBM aims to advance the science underlying Watson as well as simplify and scale its associated services, he added.

IBM has placed big bets on Watson and cognitive computing, and it now considers the technology not just the next frontier in computing but a core part of its business.  

"When everyone's digital, and every industry has its Uber, its Tesla, its whatever, what differentiates you?" said IBM chairman, president and CEO Ginni Rometty in a recent interview. "The thing that can most differentiate your company is cognitive."  

That emphasis could pay off handsomely. According to Allied Market Research, the cognitive computing market is expected to generate $13.7 billion in revenue by 2020.

Of course, IBM isn't the only company vying for a piece of that pie.

"The techniques used by Watson are being replicated everywhere by other companies," said Endpoint's Kay. But "of all general AI/machine-learning tools, Watson is the most developed and longest-standing."

Said Abrams, "It's our objective to make cognitive the premier paradigm for computing, and to make Watson the premier platform on which that's done."


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