Michael Rhodin, the IBM senior vice president overseeing the Watson Group, spoke at the event of how Watson could be used in commercial settings. It can serve as a personal assistant, interacting with customers and sorting through troves of data for tidbits of useful information, Rhodin said. Unlike standard call-center interactive voice response systems, a Watson-based system can learn more about what a caller needs over the course of a phone session, helping address the caller's needs in a more timely, and presumably less frustrating, manner.
The company has also been reaching out to other businesses and entrepreneurs to look for ways that Watson can be incorporated into products and services. The company has set aside $100 million to invest in startups that use Watson and will devote 500 technical experts in the group's New York office to helping these organizations become more familiar with the technology. Thus far more than 890 parties have started experimenting with IBM-hosted Watson services.
A few of these companies demonstrated prototypes at the launch event. One such company is MD Buyline, which supplies detailed product reports about medical equipment to hospitals. Currently, the company analysts assemble these reports from manufacturers, clinical studies and other sources, said Douglas Taylor, a MD Buyline product manager.
Today the hospital purchasing committees have to go through "mountains and mountains of data to figure out what they want to standardize on and what they want to purchase," Taylor said. "By plugging Watson into the equation, we can make that happen in much more real-time fashion."
In MD Buyline's prototype, called the Hippocrates Procurement Advisor, a user can make a query about a type of equipment. Watson will return a set of results listing all the products in that category. The user can then ask additional questions to narrow down the possible list of choices, to better identify which piece of equipment would be ideal for the job.
"We're dynamically building reports that would take a week or two to generate through our experts," Taylor said. Taylor said MD Buyline doesn't foresee the additional cost for using Watson as being prohibitively expensive, given that the service could save hospitals money by shortening the procurement review process and potentially even reducing outside consultation fees.
Nor does MD Buyline worry about being locked into, or becoming overly reliant on, using IBM's Watson. The data MD Buyline uses comes from multiple parties -- hospitals, manufacturers, the company itself. In the process of integrating Watson into MD Buyline's own systems, IBM has maintained very clean boundaries of data ownership, allowing data owners to keep control of their own material, Taylor said.