More than a quiz show champion
Watson goes to work
In 2007, IBM Research took on the feat of building a computer system that could compete with top players on the U.S. TV quiz show Jeopardy!. The global team of researchers behind the IBM Watson computer system included leading specialists in data analytics, speech and linguistics, and Deep Question Answering technology. They set off to create a computer system that could directly and precisely answer natural language questions over an open and large, unstructured range of knowledge - something envisioned by scientists since the advent of computers themselves.
In early 2011, Watson beat the two highest ranked players in a highly public two-game competition that was nationally televised to over 34.5 million viewers. Beyond being an important moment in pop culture, the win symbolized a major scientific breakthrough in computer science, artificial intelligence and Big Data. Watson gave the world a glimpse at a new era of computing and computer systems that can learn, adapt, hypothesize and confidently suggest answers.
Putting Watson to work
It is estimated that 2.5 quintillion bytes of new data are created daily with an estimated 80% of this produced as "unstructured" data. Unlocking this data holds huge potential. Companies know this data is rich in information and potential insight, but are unable to handle the volume and pace with which it arrives. As a result decision-making suffers.
Watson's cognitive capabilities were designed to take on the real-world challenges of Big Data across a range of industries. From the outset, the aim was to put Watson to work first in healthcare and finance. Both industries confront deluges of unstructured data every day, and both industries have a compelling need to act on information quickly.
In 2011, Watson went to work in healthcare. To help improve the quality of care delivered, IBM announced a pilot program with WellPoint, whose affiliated health plans cover one in nine Americans. And in March 2012, IBM launched a partnership with Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, where work is under way to teach Watson about oncology diagnosis and treatment options.
Combining its abilities to navigate the complexities of human language and to analyze massive amounts of data exceptionally quickly (over 200 million pages in three seconds on Jeopardy!), Watson has the potential to help doctors make evidence-based decisions, analyze new research studies, published reports and articles, as well as patient outcomes and interactions.
For banks, Watson can pore over financial, regulatory, economic and social data across exchanges, currencies and funds at terrific speeds. Citi, for example, will examine the use of Watson's deep content analysis and evidence based learning capabilities to advance customer interactions and to improve and simplify the experience of customers.
Extending Watson into the future
The underlying technologies developed by the Watson team opens the door to a whole new set of opportunities that continue to be explored today. Watson is immensely scalable, providing the ability to tap into the vast amount of knowledge buried in text and other unstructured data sources.
While the Jeopardy! challenge demonstrated Watson's ability to provide a single correct answer with confidence, IBM envisions the underlying technology moving toward a broader range of applications and industries to provide evidence-based decision support over large volumes of variable content. Watson's goal is to consider not simply queries but entire problem scenarios, to engage interactively to improve the accuracy of its answers and to present explanations that support its output. While healthcare is the first industry Watson has been put to use in, the technology will be adapted and made scalable for other domains such as tech support and contact centers. Watson's architecture will be advanced to handle real-world challenges found in several business domains, where it will undergo training and a continuous learning process, enabling it to bring value to the enterprise while continuing to get smarter over time
Watson today is just the beginning of a new era of cognitive systems that can handle the complexities of natural language while increasing their knowledge through interactions, outcomes and consumption of extraordinary volumes of data. Ultimately, we see the promise of a system that will engage more fluently and with reason to make our work, lives and societies smarter.
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Thomas J Watson Research Center