IBM Watson: Why is it such a big deal?

What do you get when you combine 90 servers, 200 million pages of information, and six million logic rules?

IBM Watson.

This supercomputer combines sophisticated analytical software and artificial intelligence. The aim is for it to be able to replicate (and eventually surpass) the human ability to answer questions. Watson actually processes information more like an intelligent human than a smart computer.

There are two thoughts around what Watson means for humankind. While some people worry that humans will be replaced by computers, others recognise that this is a huge opportunity for mankind.

Real World Applications

While it would be easy to dismiss Watson as “just another supercomputer”, there are a number of things that make it unique. By now, you’ve probably heard about the time Watson beat two of the best players in history on the show Jeopardy. It did this by combining:

  • Conventional computing
  • Hypothesis generation and evaluation
  • Natural language processing
  • Dynamic learning

Many see the Jeopardy win as just a gimmick. But IBM is hoping to use Watson as a way to improve upon human capabilities across many different industries.

Consider the coworking tool Slack, which currently has 5 million daily active users. Slack will soon be incorporating Watson into its system, allowing it to assist users with many different tasks. Customers experiencing technical difficulties will be able to use bots to get the issues sorted. And Slack developers will be able to use IBM AI to build cognitive-enabled bots- making it even easier for users to collaborate and improve productivity.

These capabilities are why so many business owners are taking artificial intelligence more seriously than they ever have in the past.

Watson Health Diagnoses Patients

Watson will soon be used to provide healthcare organisations with an expert oncologist. Why? Because the United States is facing an ageing population. This means there soon won’t be enough oncologists to treat the increasing number of cancer cases.

This will create a gap in care, as wealthier and insured patients see specialists at the major academic centres in the US, while the majority rely on general oncologists at community hospitals or clinics.

Enter Watson.

When diagnosing lung cancer, Watson already has an accuracy rate of 90%, compared to just 50% for human doctors. In order to keep up with all the new medical knowledge being published, it’s estimated that doctors would need to do 160 hours of reading each week. Watson analyses the patient’s medical records and combines them with a wealth of information from treatment guidelines, textbooks, and medical journals.

While a doctor may read five or six medical research papers each month, Watson can read 500,000 in just 15 seconds. Most physicians are simply trying to keep up with their current patients and paperwork. But Watson will be continually kept up to date with information from around the world. This will take some time, as Watson is struggling to understand much of the technical information and medical jargon. But the potential is incredible, and it is set to revolutionise the way patients are treated.

We can expect improved outcomes and service for patients across all income levels. Watson Health is just one example of how Watson will help change the world. Watson is actually made up of around 30 products across dozens of industries. This means that the real-world applications are almost limitless.

A Superior Customer and Employee Experience

Cognitive systems get smarter and provide more value as time goes on. They’re continually learning, and the more they interact with guests, the more they adapt and improve.

Imagine if your customers could reach out to the most knowledgeable expert in your industry and immediately receive the help they need. And imagine if your employees could increase productivity without working harder or putting in more hours at the office. You can see why IBM Watson represents a huge disruption to industries around the world.

Already, Watson is being used as front-of-shop service in retail in Japan. And Hilton Hotels are using a Watson-enabled concierge named Connie to help guests with dining recommendations, tourist attractions, and hotel amenities in the United States.

It’s easy to see the implications of this technology in the future. A doctor will one day have all of the latest medical trends, research material and treatment insights at their fingertips And a lawyer will have all of the relevant case histories without needing to spend hours researching. Instead, they’ll have evidence-based responses and arguments ready to go.

Humans will one day walk into a shop, show a robot a dress they like, and be told where they can get it (or something similar) in their size.

Productivity Gains with Lower Expenses

A lot of professionals are becoming increasingly nervous about the way that companies are currently using Watson to scale and transform their businesses. In January this year, a Japanese insurance firm replaced 34 of its employees with an AI system based on IBM Watson. The system increases productivity by 30%, and the firm will be seeing a return on its investment within two years. These types of decisions will soon be commonplace in a number of industries over the next few years.

The businesses that embrace AI will have lower costs and increased productivity. Those that ignore AI will be less competitive. One of the biggest issues will be finding meaningful work for the humans that are replaced by technology. Ideally, these employees will be reallocated into positions that require skills that are uniquely human. While cognitive technology and machine learning isn’t anything new for IBM, the commercialisation of it is.

Disruptive Technology is Changing the World

As IBM’s David Cole points out, Airbnb is the largest accommodation provider on earth and yet it owns no real estate. Uber is now the largest taxi company in the world. It doesn’t own any vehicles. And Facebook is the most popular media owner in the world, but creates no content.

Compare these companies to those like Nokia, Blockbuster, and Kodak- all of which overlooked the opportunity to embrace innovation. These companies have been superseded by companies like Instagram, Netflix, and Apple. This is because some business owners, CEOS, and shareholders were able to see the writing on the wall. They were ready to go in a new direction when the time came.

One of the reasons why IBM Watson is so important is because IBM has opened Watson up to businesses and developers. IBM opened up Watson application programming interfaces in 2015, allowing developers to use the cloud-based artificial intelligence system with their own programs.

According to IBM CEO and president Ginni Rometty, in five years, every important business and personal decision will be made with the help of Watson. “It’s all about extending your expertise,” she said. “A teacher. A doctor. A lawyer. It doesn’t matter what you do. We will extend it.”

Watson is Just the Beginning

If businesses are looking for machine learning capabilities or Natural Language Processing, these capabilities are endless and there are thousands of alternatives. But Watson currently reigns unmatched for those looking for comprehensive solutions for specific problems and deep question and answer technology. However, Watson may soon have these competitors nipping at its heels:

  • Microsoft has moved into the world of deep learning and artificial intelligence with Project Oxford. It aims to implement speech, text, facial, and image recognition into smartphone and computer software.
  • Google bought DeepMind Technologies in 2014, aiming to build the best learning algorithms on earth. In March 2016, DeepMind defeated Lee Sedol- the best Go player in the world. In May this year, the Future of Go Summit will be held in China. The tournament will feature the best Chinese Go players competing in teams against AlphaGo.
  • Baidu (China’s answer to Google) has created Minwa, closely mirroring Watson with similar image recognition capabilities. It’s now also moving into deep learning, although the company keeps future projects under the radar.

As one of the biggest disruptors in business this decade, Watson represents the type of technology that will allow early implementers to push ahead of the competition. Cognitive intelligence, artificial intelligence, and virtual reality all present opportunities for businesses to serve their customers in new and exciting ways.

Business owners and CEOs will need to decide if and when to embrace this technology. They’ll also need to decide how to use it to enter new markets, scale their businesses, and interact with customers.

Have you considered how artificial intelligence will change your industry? Don’t get left behind. Get in touch today to talk about your options.


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