IBM's Watson: Your next VP of marketing?

Big Blue's 'Jeopardy'-playing supercomputer's future is not on the game-show circuit, but in business

Unless movies in which robots with advanced intelligence pose a threat to humankind give you nightmares, you may very well be delighted, or at least intrigued, by IBM's "Jeopardy"-playing supercomputer Watson.

Watson has already proven it can defeat human "Jeopardy" champs in head-to-head combat. In an exhibition round today with 15 questions, the machine racked up $4,400 while organic life form competitor Ken Jennings earned $3,400 and Brad Rutter scored $1,200. Time will tell whether Watson can fare as well during a full game of "Jeopardy" in February.

In the meantime, it's worthwhile to consider the implications of a computer with sufficient artificial intelligence to ably play a game like "Jeopardy" that not only tests the amount of raw data a machine (or human) has stored away, but also its ability to analyze natural language -- "Jeopardy" categories and answers contain puns, for example -- so as to understand what sort of information is really being requested and to present that information clearly, concisely, and quickly.

The effects of a "Jeopardy"-playing supercomputer for the business or academic world is not lost on IBM, of course. As IBM Research Program Manager David Shepler put it, "IBM is not in the entertainment business. But we are in the business of technology and pushing frontiers."

In other words, "Jeopardy" provides an excellent medium for testing Watson's abilities while showing the world what it can do, but IBM has far bigger plans after "Jeopardy" than, say, booking Watson on a future episode of "Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?" Rather, the company envisions Watson's underlying technology, which boils down to an efficient analytical engine capable of pulling data from multiple sources in real time, discovering patterns or relationships among data sets, and delivering an answer with a high degree of reliability, as having applications in an array of fields, from health care to efficiently running a city.

As IBMers describe it, such a system could, for example, monitor a county's historical and real-time traffic information while tapping data sources on where accidents occur most, where the most speeding tickets are given, and where the public transportation routes are. The system could then be queried by a city planner: Where should we add more traffic lights? Where should we raise or lower speed limits? Where should we add a carpool lane? What should we do to make traffic safer and more efficient? Watson's analytical data-mining capabilities would pore over troves of data, looking for connections and patterns to come up clear suggestions.

Similarly, IBM sees this sort of technology having use in the world of health care. Given access to a wealth of data about cancer -- symptoms, treatments, geographic factors (that is, characteristics of regions where cancer is prevalent), biological factors, and so forth -- the system could find previously unrecognized correlations that could lead to potential causes and cures.

Watson also has impressive applications in the business world. In its current iteration, the system needs to be fed its "Jeopardy" questions in text form; voice recognition isn't its strong suit. But imagine an automated email or IM-based customer service system where a customer could ask any number of questions in natural language and theoretically get quick and accurate answers from a machine drawing from an array of data sources in real time instead of a overworked customer-service rep tapping away at a keyboard.

And who knows? Once voice recognition technology achieves perfection, Watson might be able to sit in on board meetings in place of a human VP of marketing, providing insights and recommendations extracted from unrecognized patterns among large swatch of data instead of being extracted, from, well, somewhere less reliable.

Follow Ted Samson on Twitter at tsamson_iw.

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Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.