IBM’s World of Watson – Adapting Technologies Today for Customer Adoption Tomorrow

By Charles King, Pund-IT, Inc.  November 2, 2016

As the fall IT industry conference season draws to a close, it’s clear that 2016 has been a banner year. Sure, there has been a lot of the same old/same old, like Larry Ellison’s traditional OpenWorld bombast, and the traffic-snarling Salesforce crowds that make Dreamforce a gridlock nightmare. However, there have also been more than a few unusual or unique events, including Dell EMC World’s first look at the now-unified, increasingly integrated companies, and Intel’s IDF-announced plans to integrate/support ARM technologies.

But last week’s IBM World of Watson (WoW) conference in Las Vegas may have topped them all. Why so? Because while the company has paid ample attention to its Watson cognitive technologies and platform since their debut in 2011 on the Jeopardy! game show, there has been little concrete evidence of Watson’s presence in and impact on commercial markets.

That situation changed dramatically at WoW, with executives from IBM and its customers and partners delineating Watson’s available benefits, along with upcoming features and services that will continue to evolve and extend the ways that organizations leverage the platform. By the time IBM CEO Ginni Rometty took the stage for her closing WoW keynote on Wednesday afternoon, it was clear that IBM has taken a substantial if not commanding lead in developing and delivering cognitive solutions for business customers.

Let’s look at that more closely.

Watson’s current state

Those memorable Jeopardy! appearances continue to be the reference point for many people’s view of Watson so it’s important to understand that IBM has massively evolved the platform, its capabilities and use cases since then.

In short, the Watson that made its television debut in 2011 was an advanced question/answer (Q/A) system that could respond to natural language (spoken) questions. Some called it a multi-million-dollar parlor trick, but that denigrates the years of research and investment required to bring Watson to life.

Based on IBM’s Deep Q/A technology, Watson was built on a cluster of commercially available Power Systems 750 servers with a total of 720 POWER7 processors (running 2,880 threads) and 16TB of RAM which was used to store the databases of game information. Additional features were demanded by Jeopardy! producers, including a device that pressed a physical button when Watson was ready to respond.

What does Watson look like today? That’s hard to describe precisely since businesses and developers gain access to Watson services and solutions via IBM Cloud. But IBM’s Power Systems continue to provide the essential hardware foundation for Watson. That is hardly surprising given the special affinities that IBM’s hardware and middleware have for the wide range of advanced analytics solutions that can be leveraged for Watson-based functions.

Cognitive characteristics

In essence, the platform includes specific and customizable features, software developer toolkits (SDKs) and APIs for enabling, testing and enhancing Watson’s characteristics. As numerous executives noted during WoW, Watson represents IBM’s best-efforts at developing a truly cognitive system that:

  • Interacts with people: sees, talks and hears with humans in a relatable way
  • Understands imagery, language, and other unstructured data like human vocal intonations and facial expressions
  • Reasons by forming hypotheses from the data it collects to infer and extract ideas
  • Learns with each interaction to continuously develop and sharpen its expertise

Those are aspects of Watson’s capabilities and what might be called its personality that underlie the solutions created by IBM and dozens of Watson partners. For example, customers can utilize Personality Insights, an ad-targeting service developed by StatSocial and IBM Watson for use in social audiences and other markets.

Or they can leverage IBM’s Multi-Channel Fraud Analytics for Banking, a next-gen Watson analytics offering designed to address all phases of enterprise financial crime prevention. Or they can tap into IBM Watson for Clinical Trial Matching Express Edition, a healthcare/pharmaceutical solution for speedily evaluating the clinical attributes of patients for medical research/trials.

Or… But you get the idea.

On another level, developers can use IBM Bluemix to access and leverage Watson’s granular features via SDKs and application programming interfaces (APIs) to enhance and expand the capabilities of their applications. In fact, one of the key announcements made at WoW concerned enabling IBM MobileFirst for iOS apps to be integrated with a broad set of Watson-based conversational and cognitive capabilities.

What kinds of capabilities are included? For example, developers can broaden access to their work by utilizing Watson’s translation services for US English, UK English, Japanese, Spanish, Brazilian Portuguese, Modern Standard Arabic and Mandarin.

However, Watson’s language capabilities aren’t limited to translation. Instead they cover a wide range of granular related processes and functions that are supported through Watson services and API packages. These include, AlchemyLanguage, Conversation, Dialog, Document Conversion, Natural Language Classifier, Personality Insights, Retrieve and Rank and Tone Analyzer.

Other Watson services and APIs focus on vision, speech/text and data insights capabilities. Moreover, IBM is substantially enhancing Watson by continuing to expand APIs and related services, valuable points for the organizations and developers investing in cognitive computing.

The future of Watson – WoW is now

As I noted before, a major difference between World of Watson and past IBM customer/partner events (including Insight 2015 which WoW replaces) were the 50+ enterprise customer representatives who publicly discussed the Watson solutions they currently use and the resulting benefits they are accruing. That was obviously important to IBM for both practical and strategic reasons.

Half a decade into the Watson era, it was critical for the company to demonstrate that the time and financial investments it has made in cognitive computing are paying off. But the vast majority of business IT customers tend to be cautious in adopting new technologies. So having leading corporations publicly state why they are buying and buying into Watson was just what the platform and IBM needed to lift up the spirits of hesitant customers and shut-up the fear, uncertainty and doubt (FUD) being spread by some competitors.

Those include HPE CEO Meg Whitman who said in a widely-circulated Fortune (April issue) interview that Watson is, “not as far along in terms of real-world applications as you might imagine from the advertising.” Whether HPE will have anything remotely comparable to Watson solutions or the parade of Watson-supporting executives at WoW to show at its own Discover 2016 conference in London late in November remains to be seen.

In any case, when IBM CEO Ginni Rometty took the stage for her closing keynote on Wednesday she did so with the confident glow of a coach who knows that her team has hit a game-changing, clutch home run. That became increasingly clear as Rometty was joined by GM CEO and chairman Mary Barra, Dr. Yitzhak Peterburg, chairman of Teva Pharmaceutical Industries, U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King Jr. and British music producer Alex Da Kid.

Rometty’s guests all offered their own takes on Watson’s myriad capabilities and benefits. Those included making GM’s On Star vehicle connectivity and data capabilities more intelligent with Watson APIs, using IBM solutions, such as its Weather Channel data assets to enhance Teva’s exploration of new treatment options for and management of chronic diseases such as asthma and diabetes, providing (per John B. King), the ability to “meaningfully personalize” education and offer teachers new tools, and influencing Alex Da Kid’s latest song, “Not Easy,” which features X Ambassadors, Elle King and Wiz Khalifa.

These examples may seem eclectic on first examination but if eclecticism is often the sign of a flexibly perceptive, well-rounded intelligence, can’t it also be evidence of a flexible, well-rounded cognitive platform? If so, these latest achievements offer interesting insights into Watson’s current and future capabilities.

Final analysis

IBM and Watson certainly aren’t alone in the cognitive computing sphere. Along with HPE, Microsoft, Google, Amazon and numerous innovative specialists and start-ups are pressing forward with their own cognitive initiatives and related offerings.

But what was clearly apparent at WoW is that with Watson, IBM has opened a sizable lead on the competition in terms of creating innovative cognitive tools for business developers and cognitive solutions for large organizations. Vendors that hope to find a place in this fast growing, rapidly evolving market will need to pick-up the pace or risk losing largely or entirely to IBM and Watson.

IBM’s World of Watson was easily one of the best and most interesting vendor events of this year’s fall conference season. Not surprisingly, the company’s ambitions for the Watson platform were on full display. However, the presence of dozens of customers recounting the benefits they are enjoying with Watson-based solutions added substance to IBM’s claims.

They were the voices that described how IBM is already delivering the cognitive computing goods and why Watson is already touching hundreds of millions, and what will eventually become billions of lives in the process.

© 2016 Pund-IT, Inc. All rights reserved.