IBM Commits $1B to Drive Watson into the Mainstream

IBM is ready to propel Watson beyond Jeopardy, its initial proof-of-concept, and into mainstream enterprise computing. To that end, it announced plans to spend more than $1 billion on the recently formed Watson business unit, an amount that includes $100 million in venture investments to build an ecosystem of entrepreneurs developing Watson-powered apps.

In addition, companies won’t need racks of Power servers to run Watson. With a series of announcements yesterday IBM unveiled plans to deliver Watson capabilities as business-ready cloud services. The announcement focused on three Watson services: 1)  Watson Discovery Advisor for research and development projects in industries such as pharmaceutical, publishing and biotechnology; 2) Watson Analytics to deliver visualized big data insights based on questions posed in natural language by any business user; and 3) IBM Watson Explorer to more easily uncover and share data-driven insights across the enterprise.

DancingDinosaur has been following Watson since its Jeopardy days. Having long since gotten over the disappointment that Watson didn’t run on the Power side of a hybrid zEnterprise, it turns out that IBM has managed to shrink Watson considerably.  Today Watson runs 24x faster, boasts a 2,400% improvement in performance, and is 90% smaller.  IBM has shrunk Watson from the size of a master bedroom to three stacked pizza boxes, and you don’t even need to locate it in your data center; you can run it in the cloud.

Following the introduction of Watson IBM was slow to build on that achievement. It focused on healthcare and financial services, use-cases that appeared to be no-brainers.  Eventually it experienced success, particularly in healthcare, but the initial customers came slowly and the implementations appeared to be cumbersome.

Watson, at least initially, wasn’t going to be a simple deployment. It needed a ton of Power processors. It also needed massive amounts of data; in healthcare IBM collected what amounted to the entire library of the world’s medical research and knowledge. And it needed applications that took advantage of Watson’s formidable yet unusual capabilities.

The recent announcements of delivering Watson via the cloud and committing to underwrite application developers definitely should help. And yesterday’s announcement of what amounts to three packaged Watson services should speed deployment.

For example, Watson Analytics, according to IBM, removes common impediments in the data discovery process, enabling business users to quickly and independently uncover new insights in their data. Using sophisticated analytics and aided by Watson’s natural language interface, Watson Analytics automatically prepares the data, finds the most important relationships, and presents the results in an easy to interpret interactive visual format. As a result, business users are no longer limited to predefined views or static data models. Better yet, they can feel empowered to apply their own knowledge of the business to ask and answer new questions as they emerge. They also will be able to quickly understand and make decisions based on Watson Analytics’ data-driven visualizations.

Behind the new Watson services lies IBM Watson Foundations, described as a comprehensive, integrated set of big data and analytics capabilities that enable enterprises to find and capitalize on actionable insights. Basically, it amounts to a set of user tools and capabilities to tap into all relevant data – regardless of source or type – and run analytics to gain fresh insights in real-time. And it does so securely across any part of an enterprise, including revenue generation, marketing, finance, risk, and operations.  Watson Foundations also includes business analytics with predictive and decision management capabilities, information management with in-memory and stream computing, and enterprise content management packaged into modular offerings. As such it enables organizations of any size to address immediate needs for decision support, gain sustainable value from their initial investments, and grow from there.

This apparently sounded good to Singapore’s DBS Bank, which will deploy Watson cognitive computing capabilities to deliver a next- generation client experience.  For starters, DBS intends to apply Watson to its wealth management business to improve the advice and experience delivered to affluent customers.  The bank is counting on cloud-based Watson to process enormous amounts of information with the ability to understand and learn from each interaction at unprecedented speed. This should greatly increase the bank’s ability to quickly analyze, understand and respond to the vast amounts of data it is accumulating.

Specifically, DBS will deploy IBM’s cloud-based Watson Engagement Advisor solution, to be rolled out in the second half of the year. From there the bank reportedly plans to progressively deploy these capabilities to its other businesses over time.

For fans of cognitive computing and Watson, the announcements represent a much awaited evolution in IBM’s strategy. It promises to make cognitive computing and the natural language power of Watson usable for mainstream enterprises. How excited fans should get, however, depends on the specifics of IBM’s pricing and packaging for these offerings.  Still, faced with having to recoup a $1 billion investment, don’t expect loss-leader pricing from IBM.

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