IBM Watson first garnered worldwide attention in 2011 as the computerized "brain" that won one million dollars on the TV game show Jeopardy! by beating human contestants. Since then, IBM has widely deployed Watson in many industry verticals and areas of application, and it has become the gold standard for purposeful analytics processing.
Read this primer on IBM Watson to understand what it is and how it is being used. We'll update the guide periodically with the latest news about IBM Watson.
- What is IBM Watson? IBM Watson is a data analytics processor that uses natural language processing, a technology that analyzes human speech for meaning and syntax. IBM Watson performs analytics on vast repositories of data that it processes to answer human-posed questions, often in a fraction of a second.
- Why does IBM Watson matter? IBM Watson's cognitive and analytical capabilities enable it to respond to human speech, process vast stores of data, and return answers to questions that companies could never solve before. As new data is entered into Watson's data repository, it uses machine learning that is the product of the processing it performs during analytics to continue to increase its knowledge of subject areas, and the insight it is capable of delivering to users.
- Who does IBM Watson affect? IBM Watson is employed in nearly every industry vertical, as well as in specialized application areas such as cybersecurity. This technology is often used by a company's data analytics team, but Watson has become so user friendly that it is also easily used by end users such as physicians or marketers.
- When is IBM Watson happening? Companies in a host of industries are already running IBM Watson for predictive analytics and problem solving. IBM Watson gives them a competitive advantage and helps them return more value to their customers and constituents.
- How can I get IBM Watson? Companies that can afford the multiple millions of dollars that a Watson system costs can run the system internally. Fortunately, Watson access is also available through the IBM cloud for a variety of industry verticals, making it a viable option for many small and midsize companies.
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What is IBM Watson?
IBM Watson is a data analytics processor that uses natural language processing, a technology that analyzes speech for meaning and syntax and translates this into actionable answers.
IBM Watson was named after IBM's first CEO, Thomas J. Watson. The technology behind Watson was originally developed in an IBM research project known as DeepQA. The goal of the project was to develop a natural language-responsive system that could interpret questions asked in a human language and then analyze vast amounts of data and return answers that it would take human researchers days, weeks, or even months to derive.
The 2011 Jeopardy! contest against the game show's champions Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter was IBM Watson's first public test; in the end, Watson was victorious.
Two years later, IBM announced the first commercial application of Watson was designed for Sloan Kettering Cancer Center and WellPoint insurance. The application performed cost management analysis in the treatment of lung cancer.
Today, IBM Watson is used in a multitude of industry sectors with specialized information needs, including veterinary science, environmental and geotechnical engineering, education, government, food and beverage, legal, and music and entertainment.
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Why does IBM Watson matter?
What distinguishes IBM Watson from other analytics software is its direct relevance to business problem solving. Watson has the ability to rapidly analyze gargantuan repositories of data, documents, and other artifacts; it also comes with a level of human speech pattern recognition and language understanding that was elusive for many artificial intelligence applications in the past. IBM Watson uses cognitive learning practices that combine the data analytics and statistical reasoning of machines with uniquely human qualities, such as self-directed goals, common sense, and ethical values.
As a top layer to all of this, IBM has packaged various versions of Watson to address the specific business concerns and questions of different industry verticals.
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Watson also plays a key role in managing unstructured data, which according to IBM, comprises around 80% of data under management in a majority of companies. Watson processes unstructured text and documentation by "learning" a subject by pairing questions and answers after the user loads all related materials (e.g., Word documents, .pdf files, web pages, etc.). The platform is capable of processing millions of documents, and reading 800 million pages of data per second.
IBM Watson also processes natural language, which can help businesses be more efficient. For example, an insurance company or a healthcare company can use Watson to review medical reports in order to isolate key medical terms; or a physician might use Watson to pore through millions of pages of clinical research in an attempt to isolate a medical condition, and arrive at a diagnosis and treatment plan.
Watson is now offered by IBM in the cloud. This means that companies can start small in their use of Watson and pay for only what they need, without having to invest in expensive on-premises computing.
Also, a robust set of APIs enables developers to incorporate the capabilities of IBM Watson into other business applications.
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Who does IBM Watson affect?
IBM Watson technology can apply to a broad range of companies, institutions, and public sector entities because it has been customized to many of these industries' knowledge bases. Within companies, the use of Watson can fall under the purview of, for example:
- a data architect who is tasked with big data and analytics responsibilities; or
- a data scientist who must develop algorithms and queries and can use Watson technology to derive the answers; or
- an end business user, like a doctor in a medical practice who wishes to describe a physical condition to Watson and obtain Watson's assessments about a probable diagnosis.
- IBM Watson's latest gig: Improving cancer treatment with genomic sequencing (TechRepublic)
- How IBM Research wants to use mobile devices to detect early stage dementia (TechRepublic)
- IBM Watson's impressive healthcare analytics capabilities continue to evolve (TechRepublic)
- IBM's Watson may provide a shortcut to treating cancer (CNET)
- IBM's Watson Health, American Diabetes Association partner on cognitive apps, analytics (ZDNet)
- How IBM's cloud and cognitive computing tools help deliver personalized customer experiences (TechRepublic)
- The Complete Machine Learning Bundle (TechRepublic Academy)
- Ebook: IT leader's guide to the future of artificial intelligence (Tech Pro Research)
When is IBM Watson happening?
IBM Watson operates in many industry verticals, ranging from healthcare predictive analytics and condition diagnosis to smart city infrastructure planning and legal case outcome analysis.
IBM Watson runs on IBM Power servers that are not really supercomputers in the classic sense, but that act that way when they are clustered together in groups of tens and even hundreds of servers, with a price point for an internal system that only a large enterprise or a research institute can afford. The good news for small and midsize companies is that they can use Watson, too; IBM offers a cloud-based version of Watson that companies can pay for by subscription or on demand.
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- IBM Watson, FDA to use blockchain tech to build secure exchange for health data (TechRepublic)
- IBM Watson gets a big data boost with open source CognizeR extension (TechRepublic)
- IBM Watson jumps into autonomous vehicles with driverless shuttle Olli (TechRepublic)
- IBM, Cisco to integrate Watson, collaboration tools like WebEx (ZDNet)
- Macy's taps IBM Watson to improve in-store shopping app (ZDNet)
- IBM Watson ups the ante on digital wellness with gene-based health app (TechRepublic)
- How good is IBM Watson at foreign languages? One Spanish bank is about to find out (ZDNet)
How can I get IBM Watson?
Companies that can afford an investment into multiple millions of dollars can purchase an in-house IBM Watson system, which consists of futile servers tethered together into a processing cluster. For companies without these resources, Watson can be accessed through the IBM cloud. For example, IBM offers a software developer's cloud powered by Watson. It also provides a cloud-based global healthcare analytics cloud.
- IBM Watson: Six lessons from an early adopter on how to do machine learning (TechRepublic)
- Download: How to implement AI and machine learning (TechRepublic)
- IBM Watson Ecosystem (IBM)
- Watson Developer Cloud (IBM)
- IBM Watson Health (IBM)
- IBM Watson University Programs (IBM)
Mary E. Shacklett is president of Transworld Data, a technology research and market development firm. Prior to founding the company, Mary was Senior Vice President of Marketing and Technology at TCCU, Inc., a financial services firm; Vice President of Product Research and Software Development for Summit Information Systems, a computer software company; and Vice President of Strategic Planning and Technology at FSI International, a multinational manufacturing company in the semiconductor industry. Mary is a keynote speaker and has more than 1,000 articles, research studies, and technology publications in print.