The March of IBM Watson: From Kitchen to Executive Suite

August 5, 2014

Watson, fresh from its recipe innovations at Bon Appétit, is on the move…again. From the game show to the hospital, Watson has been demonstrating its expertise in the most interesting venues.

I read “A Room Where Executives Go to Get Help from IBM’s Watson.” The subtitle is an SEO dream: “Researchers at IBM are testing a version of Watson designed to listen and contribute to business meetings.” I know IBM has loads of search and content processing capability. In addition to the gems cranked out by Dr. Jon Kleinberg and Dr. Ramanathan Guha, IBM has oodles of acquisitions in the search and content processing sector. Do you know about Clementine? Are you familiar with iPhrase? Have your explored Cybertap’s indexing and search function with your local IBM representative? What about Vivisimo? What about the search functions in DB2, FileNet, and OminFind regardless of its incarnation? Whew. That’s a lot of search and content processing horsepower. I think most of that power remains in the barn.

Watson is not in the barn. Watson is a raging bull. Watson is, I believe, something special. Based on open source technology plus home brew wizardry, Watson is a next-generation information retrieval world beater. The idea is that Watson is trained in a manner similar to the approach used by Autonomy in 1996. Then that indexed content is whipped into a question answering system. Hapless chefs, litigation wary physicians, and now risk averse MBAs can use Watson to make better decisions or answer really tough questions.

I know this to be true because Technology Review tells me so. Whatever MIT-tinged Technology Review says is pretty darned solid. Here’s a passage I noted:

Everything said in the room can be instantly transcribed, providing a detailed record of any meeting, and allowing the system to listen out for commands addressed to “Watson.” Those commands can be simple requests for information of the kind you might type into a search box. But Watson can also take a more active role in a discussion. In a live demonstration, it helped researchers role-playing as executives to generate a short list of companies to acquire.

The write up explains that a little bit of preparation is required. There’s the pesky training, which is particularly annoying when the topic of the meeting is, “The DOJ attorneys are here to discuss the depositions” or “We have a LOCA at the reactor. Everyone to my conference room now.” I suppose most business meetings are even more exciting.

Technology Review points out that the technology has a tough time converting executive speech to text. Watson uses the text as fodder for the indexing and parsing required to pass queries to the internal subsystems which then tap into Watson for answers. The natural language query and automatic query refinement functions seem to work well for game show questions and for discerning uses of tamarind. For a LOCA meeting or discussion of a deposition, Watson may need a bit more work.

I find the willingness of major “real” news outlets to describe Watson in juicy write ups an indication of the esteem in which IBM is held. My view is a bit different. I am not sure the Watson group at IBM knows how to generate substantial revenues. The folks have to make some progress toward $1 billion in revenue and then grow that revenue to a modest $10 billion in five or six years.

The fact that outfits in search and content processing have failed to hit more modest benchmarks for decades is irrelevant. The only search company that I know has generated billions is Google. Keep in mind that those billions come from online advertising. HP bought Autonomy for $11 billion in the hopes of owning a Klondike. IBM wisely went with open source technology and home grown code.

But the eventual effect of both HP’s and IBM’s approach will be more modest revenues. HP makes a name for itself via litigation and IBM is making a name for itself with demonstrations and some recipes.

Search and content processing, whether owned by a large company or a small one, faces some credibility, marketing, revenue, technology, and profit challenges. I am not sure a business triathlete can complete the course at this time. Talk is just so much easier than getting over or around the course intact.

Stephen E Arnold, August 5, 2014


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