Watson’s New Job: IBM Salesman - Technology Review
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.