What Ever Happened to IBM’s Watson?

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    After Watson triumphed on the gameshow Jeopardy in 2011, its star scientist had to convince IBM that it wasn’t a magic answer box, and “explained that Watson was engineered to identify word patterns and predict correct answers for the trivia game.” The New York Times looks at what’s happened in the decade since: Watson has not remade any industries. And it hasn’t lifted IBM’s fortunes. The company trails rivals that emerged as the leaders in cloud computing and A.I. — Amazon, Microsoft and Google. While the shares of those three have multiplied in value many times, IBM’s stock price is down more than 10 percent since Watson’s “Jeopardy!” triumph in 2011…. The company’s missteps with Watson began with its early emphasis on big and difficult initiatives intended to generate both acclaim and sizable revenue for the company, according to many of the more than a dozen current and former IBM managers and scientists interviewed for this article… The company’s top management, current and former IBM insiders noted, was dominated until recently by executives with backgrounds in services and sales rather than technology product experts. Product people, they say, might have better understood that Watson had been custom-built for a quiz show, a powerful but limited technology… IBM insists that its revised A.I. strategy — a pared-down, less world-changing ambition — is working… But the grand visions of the past are gone. Today, instead of being a shorthand for technological prowess, Watson stands out as a sobering example of the pitfalls of technological hype and hubris around A.I. The march of artificial intelligence through the mainstream economy, it turns out, will be more step-by-step evolution than cataclysmic revolution. One example: IBM technologists approached cancer medical centers, but “were frustrated by the complexity, messiness and gaps in the genetic data at the cancer center… At the end of last year, IBM discontinued Watson for Genomics, which grew out of the joint research with the University of North Carolina. It also shelved another cancer offering, Watson for Oncology, developed with another early collaborator, the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center…” IBM continued to invest in the health industry, including billions on Watson Health, which was created as a separate business in 2015. That includes more than $4 billion to acquire companies with medical data, billing records and diagnostic images on hundreds of millions of patients. Much of that money, it seems clear, they are never going to get back. Now IBM is paring back Watson Health and reviewing the future of the business. One option being explored, according to a report in The Wall Street Journal, is to sell off Watson Health… Many outside researchers long dismissed Watson as mainly a branding campaign. But recently, some of them say, the technology has made major strides… The business side of Watson also shows signs of life. Now, Watson is a collection of software tools that companies use to build A.I.-based applications — ones that mainly streamline and automate basic tasks in areas like accounting, payments, technology operations, marketing and customer service. It is workhorse artificial intelligence, and that is true of most A.I. in business today. A core Watson capability is natural language processing — the same ability that helped power the “Jeopardy!” win. That technology powers IBM’s popular Watson Assistant, used by businesses to automate customer service inquiries… IBM says it has 40,000 Watson customers across 20 industries worldwide, more than double the number four years ago. Watson products and services are being used 140 million times a month, compared with a monthly rate of about 10 million two years ago, IBM says. Some of the big customers are in health, like Anthem, a large insurer, which uses Watson Assistant to automate customer inquiries. “Adoption is accelerating,” Mr. Thomas said. Read more of this story at Slashdot.

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