Monetizing Watson: Toy or game changer?


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Like many, I have watched IBM's Watson computer compete on the answer and question show Jeopardy, wondering what IBM has created. During the course of the show, my mind regularly wandered off, wondering whether this event has broader implications. Having been briefed on Watson prior to the show's airing, it is clear that Watson is not HAL (see 2001, A Space Odyssey), and yet, within the confines of the Jeopardy challenge, IBM's innovators have created a skilled Jeopardy competitor second to none. One wonders whether Watson would have achieved the same result if it only had 5 racks of computers instead of 10 (since Watson seemed quicker to respond) or whether it would have fared as well without much of its pre-show training.

From a practical standpoint, the obvious question from a futurist's perspective would be "what's next?" If one looks back on Deep Blue (chess champion) and Blue Gene (biological modeling powerhouse), IBM suggests that the platform has the potential to do great things, something IBM dedicated significant resources to demonstrate in pilot projects. That said, IBM efforts have not translated significantly into successful commercial offerings or broadly adopted transformative approaches to problem solving. Can Watson prove to be the exception?

I thought it was notable that Watson was built on COTS components that could be purchased by a prospective customer tomorrow. It is clear that IBM has invested heavily in a custom software application that whose specific goal was to successfully navigate the Jeopardy ecosystem. This application cannot be readily modified to address either societal or industry problems, but could be somewhat helpful in better translating human communication, idiomatic speech, and double entendres in the course of improving information searching. Beyond that, it is likely that Watson's achievements are, at most, a baby step along Ray Kurzweil and Time Magazine's projection of a computer surpassing human intelligence by 2045.

So what should IBM expect to gain financially from its investment in Watson? Is it different from Deep Blue or Blue Gene? In this case, maybe yes.

It is clear that we are increasingly overwhelmed with data and information and are unable to bring together all major relevant information to support strategic decision making on a regular basis. Smart search engines help (a lot!), but it is often not possible to keep up with new discoveries (especially small insights) and routinely incorporate these advances into ongoing research and/or business processes. Automated intelligent data mining tools with the ability to continually assess new data, respond in a timely fashion to new queries, and understand the broader question, implications, or intent of industry-specific questions could yield great value, especially if available to a broad audience within an organization as a real-time resource. Watson could be the progenitor for such a solution. Life science researchers, drug developers, practicing physicians, government regulators monitoring drug safety, disease epidemiologists, and others readily come to mind as potential beneficiaries from such a solution.

For Watson to evolve into a commercial success, it will require measurable near term business benefits and an easy-to-measure ROI. While I could propose several paths that might lead to this outcome, it is likely that IBM will need to critically assess the key advances embodied within its Watson investment and extract and transform them into more broadly applicable tools. Is this possible? That has yet to be determined, although with one more day of the competition remaining, I would predict that Watson will succeed magnificently at the task at hand. I anticipate that most people will read this after the competition is done, so you can immediately determine whether I was right or not. While not HAL, Watson clearly highlights the complexity of the human mind and the difficulty in beginning to mimic this powerful capability in a machine. While fears of a future Terminator are not completely unfounded, that time remains far off. In the interim, let's hope that Watson can evolve into a practical tool to the benefit of mankind sometime soon.

As always, alternate opinions and comments are welcomed.

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