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IBM bets big on Watson-branded cognitive computing

IBM will dedicate a third of its research projects to cognitive computing, IBM execs revealed at the launch of its Watson business unit

By Joab Jackson, IDG News Service
January 09, 2014 05:36 PM ET

IDG News Service - IBM sees cognitive computing as the new frontier of computing and is positioning its Watson architecture as the way forward in this new landscape, for both the company and its customers.

In a New York event Thursday to launch the organization's new Watson business unit, IBM CEO Ginni Rometty touted the 2011 Watson victory on the "Jeopardy" game show as nothing less than a harbinger of a new era in computing.

Today we are in the "programmable era" of computers, in which all the possible actions that a computer can take must be programmed in advance, she explained.

In contrast, Watson is "a new species," Rometty said.

Watson "is taught -- it is not programmed. It runs by experience and from interaction. By design, it gets smarter over time and gives better judgments over time," Rometty said.

While IBM has been pitching Watson technologies for commercial use at least since the "Jeopardy" win, the new business unit, the Watson Group, shows the level of IBM's commitment to the post-programmable era.

IBM will invest US$1 billion in the group and is installing the business unit in a state-of-the-art facility in New York's trendy "Silicon Alley" district.

The company is also earmarking more of its money for furthering the still-nascent science of helping computers think for themselves. Now, about a third of all IBM research projects will be dedicated to some aspect of cognitive computing, said Guruduth Banavar, the IBM Research vice president who also spoke at the event. Currently, IBM has about 3,000 researchers worldwide.

IBM first developed Watson as a research project to compete against humans on the game show "Jeopardy," answering obscure trivia questions across a wide range of topics. The Watson architecture was developed in part by tying together IBM research in machine learning, natural language processing, knowledge representation and other disciplines within computer science. Watson can formulate answers to specific questions using a range of source materials in various formats, honing its answers by, in effect, learning how to formulate the best responses through trial and error. This approach is known as cognitive computing because it involves a computer emulating a biological brain to learn about its environment.

Now IBM is looking to apply this technology set for wider use.

Michael Rhodin, the IBM senior vice president overseeing the Watson Group, spoke at the event of how Watson could be used in commercial settings. It can serve as a personal assistant, interacting with customers and sorting through troves of data for tidbits of useful information, Rhodin said. Unlike standard call-center interactive voice response systems, a Watson-based system can learn more about what a caller needs over the course of a phone session, helping address the caller's needs in a more timely, and presumably less frustrating, manner.

The company has also been reaching out to other businesses and entrepreneurs to look for ways that Watson can be incorporated into products and services. The company has set aside $100 million to invest in startups that use Watson and will devote 500 technical experts in the group's New York office to helping these organizations become more familiar with the technology. Thus far more than 890 parties have started experimenting with IBM-hosted Watson services.

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