28-01-15-ibm-sets-watson-free-to-re-think-the-world
Statistical Data Analysis

IBM sets Watson free to re-think the world

Would you add chicken stock to a cocktail? IBM’s Watson cognitive technology suggests it’s a good flavour combination and, nope, it’s not a case of a software bug. It’s correct, to some tastes at least, because the chemical combination creates a taste sensation in the same way as the scientific cuisines of a Ferran Adria or a Heston Blumenthal have made unusual combinations work.

IBM’s Watson is a project that sees Big Blue using its algorithms to surface surprising insights from data sets and patterns. IBM likes to say that Watson – named after the company’s founder Thomas - acts more like the human brain than a computer, reining in information from all around it, including information presented as unstructured data, metadata and information in natural languages. Watson can then analyse that information to make smart guesses about what happens next. Its initial three commercial services suggest the breadth of possibility, covering that cookery example, cancer treatment and financial services.

Watson technology was famous for winning the TV game show Jeopardy! and a generation before, as Deep Blue, for beating chess grandmasters (former world champion Garry Kasparov is a Watson fan). When I meet the Watson Group head of EMEA Paul Chong though, he’s keen to play down the ‘Man versus Computer’ philosophical theorising that can sometimes dominate these discussions.

“It’s not technology that’s there to be left alone; it’s enhancing as a tool,” he says over coffee at IBM’s huge, brutalist offices on the south bank of the Thames in London. “The combination of the power of the computer with the human mind makes it even more compelling.”

That is, while Big Data can just be “fat data” and even lead to “data obesity”, Chong says, detecting probabilistic patterns is hugely powerful.

Of course, looking for patterns in data to make smarter decisions is as old as the hills, or at least the data mines. Chong says that Watson has hung about “conceptually in our labs” for 40 years. But the ability to capture, store and analyse quickly all sorts of structured and unstructured data has never been greater and that’s why Watson is being unleashed with quasi-autonomy as a new business that can explore some of the world’s most challenging tasks.

But surely the challenge is about soft skills – people and processes – as much as algorithms, I ask. The short answer is ‘yes’ and it’s the synthesis of human expertise and intuition combined with Watson’s enormous powers of digital calculation that will make the perfect mix.

“We’re democratising those skills for people who are less expert in certain fields,” Chong says, adding that throwing complex data at the wall won’t cut it for financial services types, never mind clinicians.

It’s more important to have the ability to ask natural questions and surface insights from those requests in a way that even non-techies can use to do their work better, he says. And over time, as Watson’s technology is tweaked based on historic interactions with people, it will become more precise and powerful in its analysis and ability to score hypotheses.

But isn’t Watson also overlapping with other industry efforts such as the Hadoop open source framework or even IBM’s own SoftLayer cloud platform?

Chong says these are different approaches heading towards broadly the same outcomes but points to Watson being distinctly a software-as-a-service effort where “you buy it on the drip” and get moving quickly.

“There’s one perception of Watson as some sort of advisor but there are many more things it can bring,” he says. “We’re complementary rather than competitive with Hadoop, SoftLayer et cetera.”

Chong says that Watson will go to market in a few ways. For example it will adopt a transformational approach with consulting in healthcare to help providers to become more effective in developing new pathways for drug development. But it will also be product-orientated at times, effectively selling the Cognitive Cooking, Oncology Advisor and Wealth Advisor tools as standalone offerings.

He also wants to encourage an ecosystem to grow up around Watson and to see young entrepreneurs have success stories on the platform. To that end he sees Watson behaving as a well-funded startup with offices in the trendy locations (including New York’s Silicon Alley and London’s Silicon Roundabout), hackathons, and the ability to act quickly as a separate business unit that sits adjacent to the core IBM business.

IBM employs over 400,000 staff and Watson just 2,000 but, at a time when Big Blue is having to make some business changes and as agility becomes ever more prized, that small-ish scale can be an advantage to Watson.

“We’re trying to get closer to our clients,” he says. “IT is transforming IBM as fast as anybody else. The great thing is we’ve started from a very small base so we’ve had a relatively clean sheet. We have new thinking, new people - the Millennials. Recruitment is a big thing for us and everything we’re doing is about speed and agility in the marketplace. There will be new areas we haven’t even thought of and clients are coming out with some great use cases. They can see services like Nutmeg in financial planning being able to disrupt very quickly and profoundly.

“Established companies are going to have to do the same things as Nutmeg and others. When you set up innovation, don’t let it be polluted by other things: fail fast and start again. There’s never been such a period of change and a lot of the changes like drones and autonomic vehicles are happening much faster than you’d believe.”

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Martin Veitch

Martin Veitch is Contributing Editor for IDG Connect

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