IBM’s Watson supercomputer reached a milestone in artificial intelligence last February when it beat two Jeopardy! champions. Millions watched, and while some experts dismissed it as a publicity stunt, IBM said Watson would soon be helping doctors diagnose illness, and hinted at talks with gadget companies about Watson helping consumers with questions.
As IBM prepares to celebrate the first anniversary of the televised contest on February 16, though, it is not yet offering the question-answering system for sale. Although limited trials using Watson technology are underway in health and financial services businesses, the AI prodigy is having its biggest impact by pulling in new customers for existing business products—as IBM persuades them to organize their data into formats that an AI like Watson can better understand. IBM has created a slogan, “Ready for Watson,” to help sell its products that way.
IBM hasn’t disclosed how much it spent developing Watson, but the lengthy research and development process is believed to have cost in the tens of millions of dollars. To play Jeopardy, the system needed to understand the meaning of the answers posed as clues, and to rapidly apply general knowledge—distilled from the Internet and other sources—to identify possible answers. That required novel software and an expensive supercomputer.
“Customers are coming to us and saying ‘I’d like a Watson,’ ” says Stephen Gold, IBM’s director of worldwide marketing for Watson. Eventually, that might be possible, but first they need to have the right data sets for Watson to operate on. Watson acquires knowledge by digesting piles of text data, and many businesses simply don’t have it on hand, or don’t have it organized in the right way. Alternatively, a company may not currently operate in a way that would make a question-answering computer very useful. Instead, IBM can offer its more established products and services, such as more basic data storage, processing, and business analytics. These tools can help uncover hidden trends in a company’s data, but lack Watson’s unprecedented ability to answer questions as a human would rather than just spitting out numerical analyses or results.
It’s a strategy that skeptics may say vindicates the view of Watson as little more than a marketing stunt. But Manoj Saxena, who, as general manager of IBM Watson Solutions, leads efforts to commercialize Watson, says ” ‘Ready for Watson’ is an on-ramp that allows a business to start with the subsystems [of Watson] and get value as they build up to a full Watson.” That helps sell business analytics software in particular, an area of great importance to IBM, which has spent $14 billion buying up analytics companies in the last five years.
Seton Healthcare, which operates hospitals and clinics serving 1.8 million people in central Texas, recently signed up for a system branded “Ready for Watson” that tries to predict if heart surgery patients will need to return to the hospital. Natural language processing software reads through medical records to look for relationships between factors like lifestyle, medications, and even details like whether a person previously missed appointments. Although Saxena says the system uses the same language processing ability as Watson, IBM offered such software before Watson came along.