IBM Watson Now Acts as Smart Executive Advisor

I recently wrote about IBM Watson’s new debating skills. In that post, I reported on how Watson is now able to build logical arguments both for and against specific policies or topics (using viewpoints written and published by real  people). Now IBM has added additional capabilities to its cognitive computing platform. Based on an article from the MIT Technology Review, Watson can now act as a smart executive advisor in meetings.

Conference RoomTom Simonite, author of the MIT Technology Review article, described a test run of the new Watson feature that took place at IBM’s Cognitive Environments Lab in Yorktown Heights, New York. The lab has a conference room outfitted with microphones to pick up everything meeting participants say. Some sort of software apparently takes all the speech input and transcribes it in real-time to feed it to Watson. Apparently Watson only takes text input at this point.

In the lab test that Simonite observed, a group of IBM folks pretended that they were at an executive strategy session where the goal was to identify strong acquisition targets for a company. Watson was directed to read over a corporate strategy memo summarizing the goal. It was then asked to go out and find possible companies that would make good acquisitions and bring back a list of those companies.

Once Watson returned a list of potential acquisition targets, the meeting participants proceeded to discuss them. They asked Watson to shorten the list and to include key characteristics on each company in a table. Finally, they asked Watson to make a recommendation on the strongest candidate and then asked it some follow up questions. While this executive advisor version of Watson doesn’t seem to be strongly conversational, it can answer direct questions with short, concise responses.

The demo that Simonite describes provides us with a preview of what might be on the horizon for intelligent assistants. Watson has the ability to very quickly consume and analyze large data stores and draw conclusions. This ability to rapidly read and grasp meaning would be a great trait to have in an enterprise assistant. If I know that I need to select the best material out of which to construct my product, for example, but I don’t have the ability to locate, read, and compare information on all viable materials, a Watson-like assistant would come in very handy.

It’s important to remember, though, that Watson relies completely on existing information that was developed by humans. Some of that data may be in a structured format and other content may be completely unstructured, but Watson isn’t making any of this knowledge up or inventing any new concepts. The Watson technology gives us quicker access to the content, and in a way that allows us to make better decisions based on having a broader view of the information and how it relates to other relevant data. It would be good if there was some way to give credit to those humans who created the content that Watson leverages. Ideally (or perhaps idealistically) it would be even better if the originators of the content could profit in a small way from the fact that Watson discovers their information and, in some sense, monetizes it. (This is an idea that Jaron Lanier espouses in his book Who Owns the Future, which is about how to make the economics of a software mediated world work).

Hopefully, as IBM and others develop this type of smart analytical computing, they will ensure that we have a way to understand and verify the results these assistants bring back to us. A Jeopardy! answer is either right or wrong. But the types of answers an executive assistant Watson might provide should be the starting point for further human analysis, not the end of the discussion.

IBM Watson Gets a Cyber Twin

IBM recently acquired the chatbot company MyCyberTwin. Business Insider published this news in an article by Julie Bort on Monday of this week. I wrote about MyCyberTwin last year and did some digging into its Co-Founder and CEO, Liesl Capper. MyCyberTwin, which was subsequently renamed to Cognea, offered a build-your-own chatbot platform and hosting service in what is becoming an increasingly crowded space. It’s not surprising to see some consolidation occur through acquisitions. It’s interesting that IBM, which was apparently in the market for conversational virtual assistant technology to broaden Watson’s personality, chose Cognea over other platforms.

MyCyberTwinIn the Business Insider article, Bort links to a blog post by Mike Rhodin, the senior VP of IBM’s Watson group. In the post, Rhodin emphasizes the importance of what he calls “conversational services.” The era is fast approaching, he writes, when we’ll be able to converse in an easy and meaningful way with the smart machines that provide us the services we rely upon. Rhodin goes on to describe a Relating Portfolio, which is part of the Watson Platform. The Relating Portfolio deals with technologies that help us to better relate to technology and information. The four components of the Watson Platform are: Perceiving, Reasoning, Relating, and Learning.

Rhodin frames the acquisition of Cognea / MyCyberTwin as another step along IBM’s path to becoming a leader in providing conversational services. Apparently the virtual assistant fits into the “Relating” category. Rhodin praises the Cognea virtual assistant technology as offering a depth of personality that people can relate to and that can in turn understand the user’s personality and preferences.

Both Cognea Co-Founders, Liesl Capper and John Zakos, will apparently be joining IBM as part of the acquisition. What will it be like when we can ask Watson to answer all of our most difficult questions, find meaning in vast stores of information, tell us the pros and cons of every position, and then engage us in simple human-like chitchat when we just want to relax or pass the time? It might not be too much longer before we find out.


Pitch an IBM Watson App or Roll Your Own Watson Jr.

I’ve written previously about the IBM Watson cognitive computing platform. I recently visited the Watson website and saw that IBM is holding a sort of crowdsourcing contest to find talented developers who have ideas for great Watson powered apps. The IBM Watson team is soliciting proposals until March 31. According to their timeline, they’ll review the proposals and down-select to a group of 25 finalists by April 28. Is seems that they’re looking for seasoned teams that have previous experience delivering mobile apps. Ideally, they’re hoping to get proposals from teams who have innovative and solid ideas that leverage Watson’s ability to sort through structured and unstructured data and present possible answers to specific inquiries. My guess is that IBM is most interested in apps that zero in on narrow domains (e.g. healthcare, real estate, or weather) but have applicability to a broad audience.

IBM WatsonTeams that make it into the top 25 will be given access to a Watson API and sandbox so that they can build out prototypes of their concepts. Out of the top 25, judges will select 5 finalists to pitch their app ideas to a panel of live judges. It’ll be interesting to see the results. If you’ve got an idea for an app that leverages Watson’s powerful question answering powers, don’t miss this opportunity!

For developers who’d rather go it alone, but who still want to reap the benefits of cognitive computing. perhaps you might want to roll your own question answering platform. A while ago, I ran across a great post by Tony Pearson that describes how to build a version of IBM Watson in your basement (or garage or wherever suits you). The article goes into an amazing amount of detail. Even if you don’t have ambitions to create your own Watson Jr., the information is enlightening and helps you gain a better understanding of what makes the Watson cognitive computing platform tick.

IBM Ups the Ante on Watson and Cognitive Computing

IBM WatsonToday IBM announced a big investment in its IBM Watson technology and business. IBM is establishing a separate business unit for Watson, which includes a $100 million equity fund to promote small companies developing solutions within the IBM Watson ecosystem. The new business unit comes with a swanky office (see link above) in New York City’s East Village, which is home to other prominent Silicon Alley types.

There was pretty broad press coverage of the IBM announcement, but I found an article by Neal Ungerleider on Fast Company’s website to be one of the better articles on the topic. Ungerleider points out that IBM is introducing two new Watson-fueled products called IBM Watson Analytics Advisor and IBM Watson Discovery Advisor. The Analytics tool is apparently meant to be a fairly easy to use version of Watson’s question answering system that businesses can tap into. Users can send large datasets into the cloud, ask questions about the data, and let Watson do all the processing to return the answers. I’m imagining a scenario where a travel company uploads a slew of transactional, and maybe even unstructured, data to the Watson cloud and asks: “What travel destination specials should we be offering to people who live in region X” or “how can we better entice people to book a car when they book a flight?”

The Discovery Advisor tool is apparently geared more towards helping research organizations analyze and make sense of huge datasets. The articles I’ve seen indicate that areas of focus for Discovery Advisor are currently pharmaceutical, publishing, and education research.

Ungerleider also points out that IBM announced plans to move the Watson infrastructure to its Softlayer cloud platform. Critics of Watson have used the technology’s impractical hardware requirements as one of the reasons for its slow commercial adoption. Offering Watson as a Software as a Service might remove some of those concerns.

I’ve written about IBM Watson several times on the blog and I see a lot of potential for cognitive computing. The fact that IBM is putting such a big investment behind Watson dispels any doubt about how bullish they are on the technology’s future possibilities. But AI has had a difficult time living up to the hype, so it’ll be interesting to see how cognitive computing evolves over the next couple of years and whether IBM’s bet pays off. In the meantime, you can watch the cool promotional video.

Big News! IBM Launches the Watson Ecosystem

IBM WatsonI’ve written about IBM Watson and cognitive computing before. Based on the DeepQA (Questioning answering) technology, Watson as an implementation of cognitive computing seems to me like the best technology we have today to realize the dream of truly engaging and intelligent virtual agents.

IBM has just announced the launch of their Watson Ecosystem. You can find more details about the program on the Watson Ecosystem website.

Why is this big news? By offering cloud services that let you plug into and leverage  all of Watson’s technology layers, the possibilities for creating smart apps and even virtual agents are pretty much unbounded. Let’s say you have an idea for an app that can help people find ingredients for any recipe. You can tap into Watson’s natural language processing engine so that your app can understand people when they ask for information on a particular recipe. If the Watson content database happens to include a recipe ingredients database, you can license that content for your app. With some programming skills, you can put together a virtual chef agent that’s on call 24/7 whenever a desperate cook asks: “I’m at the store. What do I need to buy to make vegetarian lasagna and a carrot cake? Or maybe a chocolate mousse?”

If there’s no recipe / ingredient database, there’s an opportunity for savvy teams in the food industry to pull such a knowledge base together and license it to app developers or others through the Watson Ecosystem. (Would be nice if somebody could come up with a “best wine based on your menu” database too). There are even more practical applications in healthcare. First responder / first aid advisory apps come to mind. Personal finance apps, along the lines of “what’s the best way to make it to the end of the month on my paycheck” could be of value, especially in the current economy.

People want access to good information and they want that access to be quick, easy, and reliable. IBM’s Watson and the cognitive computing paradigm are the technology wave of the future. IBM seems to be giving us all a way to get involved early and to reap the rewards of being pioneers in this field. It’s up to us to seize the opportunity and transform our dreams of intelligent virtual agents into reality.