Stop the hype: The real value of IBM Watson is driving small, incremental business changes

IBM's Watson is impressive technology, even if it can't quite cure cancer. It's time the company positioned it accordingly.

IBM wants you to associate its Watson technology with solving world hunger or uncovering a cure for cancer. Or, if you must, with winning Jeopardy. But even startups are now putting Watson to far more pedestrian uses, as Shimmy Technologies is doing, using Watson's AI to create customized swimsuits (and inform its swimsuit-wearing customers when to apply sunscreen).

If that sounds too simplistic, it's actually closer to the real magic of AI platforms like Watson: Helping make incremental improvements in our daily lives. IBM's Watson is an open artificial intelligence platform that IBM developed to apply advanced natural language processing, information retrieval, knowledge representation, automated reasoning, and machine learning technologies to speech, vision, language, conversation, discovery and empathy. Having conquered TV quiz shows, IBM makes money on Watson by offering solutions and applications for a range of industries to gain insights from unstructured data.

That's the big vision, and it evokes all the mysticism of discovering cancer-fighting drugs and such. But, as noted, the real promise of AI is far more mundane, and should be as available to a startup entrepreneur as a cash-rich Fortune 500 CTO. To prove this point, I spoke with Shimmy Technologies CEO Sarah Krasley,at her 84,000-square foot former shipbuilding factory in the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

Shaping the future

Though the apparel industry has recently clued into the promise of technology to enable fast fashion, it's still a somewhat slow-moving, gut-driven industry. Shimmy's goal is to help the apparel industry embrace automation and use artificial intelligence to speed things up and put people in clothes that actually fit them.

Shimmy focuses on swimwear, but the idea for the company actually came from Krasley during her undergraduate studies while watching an industrial engineer shape the hood of a car. If AI could help in this way, why not apply the approach to other types of bodies, like human bodies? From there, she grew interested in apparel and body image and ended up with a custom swimwear line that uses 3D technology and eschews the mass production model that makes so much of our clothing.

SEE: IT leader's guide to the future of artificial intelligence (Tech Pro Research)

Even so, she still lacked an AI platform upon which to build her ideas. Enter Watson.

Dr. Watson, can I get a panacea for that?

IBM positions Watson as a save-the-planet sort of groundbreaking technology, and is now getting swatted for such grandiose claims (see also here and here). It's unfortunate because Watson doesn't need to cure cancer to be hugely useful, something that entrepreneurs like Krasley are starting to figure out. Krasley decided to use the Watson Speech to Text feature with "recognizeMicrophone" to allow customers to speak their measurements and convert them into a format Shimmy could use in CAD. They also used IBM's weather API to help customers know when to re-apply sunscreen.

SEE: Special report: How to implement AI and machine learning (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

Neither of these use cases will dramatically change anyone's life. Both arguably make life a bit better, though. And that's enough.

With Watson's help, Shimmy uses AI to speed up the design process to allow for flexibility and customization and then carries that over to its manufacturing partners. Watson, Krasley says, "is like the perfect student. Eager to learn, full retention of learning, and with many other skillsets to pull from as our platform expands."

In Shimmy's case, the key has been to figure out what machines do best and use Watson to augment, not supplant, human creativity. As Krasley puts it, "Why should I spend a bunch of time crunching numbers on the strength of a zipper and weeks of time and wasted materials and money if a computer can do that digital simulation much faster than I ever could?" Computers are better at some things.

The trick is not descending into hubristic marketing that positions still nascent technologies like Watson as the panacea to the world's problems. Has IBM oversold Watson? Absolutely. As Shimmy has discovered, however, a platform like Watson can be a game-changer in far more incremental innovation, which is worth cheering about. In this way, IBM has both oversold and undersold Watson's promise. It needn't continue to do so for Watson to be a big financial success.

Also see

Image: iStockphoto/agsandrew

About Matt Asay

Matt Asay is a veteran technology columnist who has written for CNET, ReadWrite, and other tech media. Asay has also held a variety of executive roles with leading mobile and big data software companies.

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