IBM’s Watson pulls together cognitive processing, natural language capabilities, and vast, vast stores of data, and it does it so well that it famously beat trivia superchamp Ken Jennings in a televised game of Jeopardy.
Without much exaggeration, it’s one of the most impressive feats of computing ever pulled off by mankind. And we got to talk to Stephen Gold, VP of Watson Solutions at IBM.
Here’s the text of our Q&A, lightly edited for context.
BUSINESS INSIDER: Who are you and what role do you play on the Watson team?
STEVE GOLD: I’m the Vice President of Watson Solutions in IBM’s Software Group. As a member of the senior leadership team I work on commercializing industry solutions based on IBM’s transformative Watson technology.
BI: What kind of skills or training make you especially suited to your job?
SG: During my 20-year career in the technology industry, I’ve led successful enterprises and built businesses across industries (technology, software and services) and geographies (domestic and international). Prior to IBM, I served as the CMO of SPSS, which was acquired by IBM in 2009. I’ve also successfully scaled and sold two Silicon Valley based startups; Azerity to ModelN in 2006 in the capacity as CEO and Digital Market to Agile (now Oracle), as its CMO.
BI: If people want to pursue Watson-like projects nowadays, kinds of options are available to them?
SG: Special Watson-centric curriculums have been brought to the University of Connecticut and Michigan State University. The new programs align cognitive computing with existing coursework, through real-world case study learning experiences on the commercialization of Watson.
IBM has also invited students into its labs to learn about and develop applications for Watson’s groundbreaking analytics technology through its inaugural Watson internship program. IBM Watson interns worked directly with clients and alongside some of the brightest minds in the business on real-world projects such as how Watson’s analytical and predictive capabilities can be used in social media to improve how marketers engage with customers, or how Watson can be used to revolutionise smart phone and instant messaging communication.
We believe it is imperative that business students, not just computer science students, receive training in the type of big data analytics that Watson is geared towards, To this end, IBM is working with more than 1,000 universities around the world to develop curriculum that reflects the mix of business, technical and problem-solving skills necessary to prepare students for Big Data and analytics careers, across all industries. The goal: prepare students for jobs ranging from front-line analytics contributors to leadership roles such as Chief Data Officers.
BI: What’s new/happening lately with Watson?
SG: Two years after its historic victory on Jeopardy!, IBM has put Watson to work in industries including, health care, financial services and retail.
On May 21, 2013, IBM Watson once again made history with the introduction of the IBM Watson Engagement Advisor, the first consumer-facing Watson offering that puts the power of Watson within reach of everyone. The IBM Watson Engagement Advisor will fundamentally transform the way individuals and companies interact over the lifetime of their relationship. It can be used by a brand’s customer service agents or can sit directly in the hands of consumers through mobile devices, cloud-delivered services and online chat sessions. The initial focus for the IBM Watson Engagement Advisor was on industries such as telecommunications and finance, where high levels of interactions between customers and vendors exist with a variety of global organisations exploring Watson’s capabilities.
Researchers are working with Cleveland Clinic clinicians, faculty and medical students to advance Watson in the medical domain and have specific goals to provide Watson as a collaborative education tool for the doctors and medical students on site, as well as develop Watson’s technology to be used with EMRs. The research is just beginning and the prototypes are currently being developed with Cleveland Clinic faculty before it is introduced to students and more broadly at the Clinic.
The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center is using the IBM Watson cognitive computing system for its mission to eradicate cancer. The organisations have discussed their shared vision to leverage Watson’s cognitive computing power to help patients by enabling clinicians to uncover valuable insights from the cancer center’s rich patient and research databases. MD Anderson’s Oncology Expert Advisor is expected to be accessible to the cancer center’s network of clinicians through a computer interface or supported mobile devices. This provides clinicians — and in turn, patients — with immediate, worldwide access to MD Anderson’s expertise and resources, and to IBM Watson’s technology prowess in quickly extracting crucial insights from large volumes of complex data.
BI: It feels like Watson has faded from the spotlight a bit since winning Jeopardy. Can we look forward to any other exhibition-type things?
SG: Watson is a major bet for IBM and represents the first wave of a new era of computing: cognitive systems. This advanced generation of technology aims to have the potential to transform the industry just as radically as today’s programmable computers did more than 60 years ago. Most recently, Watson has undergone a transformation and has been compressed to run on into a single Power 750 server with Linux, offered from a cloud computing environment.
There are no exhibition events planned for Watson. The focus is to advance cognitive systems and put Watson to work across various industries.
BI: How will Watson improve or change down the road?
SG: Watson represents the first wave of the new era of cognitive computing. This era is not about serving real world problems using thinking computers. This advanced generation of technology aims to have the potential to transform the industry just as radically as today’s programmable computers did more than 60 years ago.
IBM is constantly looking to find new applications for Watson. To this end, in November of 2012, IBM donated a Watson system to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute to enable new leading-edge research and afford faculty and students an opportunity to find new uses for Watson and deepen the systems’ cognitive capabilities. The firsthand experience of working on the system will also better position students as future leaders in the areas of Big Data, analytics, and cognitive computing.
Over the last several years IBM has hosted competitions at the University of Rochester, Cornell University, the University of Connecticut and most recently the University of Southern California, where more than 100 business and engineering students combined their skills to recommend new uses for Watson, including an innovation that would help doctors identify people who may be suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.