Commentary

IBM's Watson Gets Real; Taking Up Residence With 'Disruptors'

IBM says that Watson, its artificial-intelligence technology, will be setting up a second home in San Francisco early next year to be close to the innovators, startups and “disruptors” who are changing the face of business as we knew it. It opened an office in New York’s Silicon Alley with similar fanfare in January 2014.

“Watson … has morphed from a room-sized computer into a service in the cloud that uses many AI technologies such as machine learning, natural language processing, image recognition, and deep learning,” writes Robert Hof for Forbes.com. “IBM wants to make sure local software developers, startups, academics, and business customers know they can hire Watson to improve their own research, products, and operations.” 

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“This is the hub of innovation and creativity,” Stephen Gold, CMO for IBM’s Watson Group tells Hof. “We want to fuel the next great disruptors.” As well as current disruptors such as Tesla and Uber, Hof points out, who are based in and around the Bay Area and Silicon Valley.

In June, Bloomberg broke the news that IBM had opened an office in San Francisco to focus on a free open-source software project called Spark, Fortune’s Jonathan Vanian reminds us. IBM hopes that startups using Spark big data technology will also be interested in Watson, Lauri Saft, a VP with Watson, tells him.  

“Ultimately, the goal is to encourage more startups to build products with Watson and perhaps introduce the technology to different industries,” Vanian writes.

But for all the publicity Watson has garnered — from its 2011 “Jeopardy” victory against two human competitors — to digital reams of speculation about its potential, “IBM needs Watson to be more than a marketing curiosity as Big Blue tries to stay relevant in the digital age,” writes Thomas Lee in the San FranciscoChronicle, after comparing it to other corporate mascots such as Ronald McDonald, the Geico Gecko and Target’s Bullseye.

“Watson wasn’t actually a single computer but rather a collection of technologies that worked together to crunch data and solve problems,” Lee points out — and it wasn’t really ready for widespread commercial use when it had its star turn with Alex Trebak. Nor was it as recently as last year. Now it’s good to go, IBM says.

“Last year, we had a vision of what (Watson) would become,” CMO Gold tells Lee. “Today, the vision is real.”

The New York Times’ Steve Lohr writes that other IBM announcements today “may be more significant” than its taking up residence on the West Coast. It “will announce new capabilities in Watson services like speech, language understanding, image recognition and sentiment analysis. These humanlike abilities such as seeing, listening and reasoning are those associated with artificial intelligence in computing. IBM calls its approach to A.I. ‘cognitive computing.’”

What makes it “distinctive … is the breadth of its effort to create Watson tools and services as plug-in offerings for a wide range of developers,” analysts tell Lohr. “IBM is building out a broad platform for where they think the future of computing is heading,” says IDC’s David Schubmehl.

IBM says it has 350 company partners using Watson to make products, with 70,000 software developers using the software in some way. “Many are in large organizations like ANZ Bank, Johnson & Johnson, the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Mayo Clinic and the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center,” Lohr reports.

The new tools “consist of new capabilities for the Watson developer cloud as well as more cognitive computing APIs honing in on visual recognition,” writes ZDNet’s Rachel King. “Building off APIs already supporting facial and image recognition, the new IBM Watson Visual Insights service was designed to enable developers to build apps spewing out insights from social media images and video.”

And, King reports, “IBM is also promising to simplify the development process for Watson apps even further with the debut of the IBM Watson Knowledge Studio, a digital toolset for connecting Watson APIs and data on any form factor across cloud and mobile platforms.”

For those of you reading who are in the genus wetware, fret not. There is a silver lining in cognitive computing’s cloud. 

“‘There is little doubt that IBM’s Watson artificial intelligence system is an incredible piece of technology.… But it won’t be replacing humans anytime soon,’ Dr. John Kelly, who leads the Watson team at IBM, told TechCrunch’s Alex Wilhelm today at TechCrunch Disrupt in San Francisco,” writes Ron Miller. “Instead, the system will augment humans and help us make better decisions, he said.”

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