LAS VEGAS: The IBM Watson division is arguably the company's most exciting. The firm may have made significant headway in the cloud, developer, analytics and server arenas, but many other technology companies are doing the same.
However, IBM stands out with its work on Watson's cognitive computing, and its natural language analytics system has evolved some distance from a machine designed to take on humans in television quiz show Jeopardy.
Watson is now a suite of platforms to inject cognitive computing into industries such as healthcare, a collection of APIs for Bluemix developers to add machine learning analytics into apps, and a cloud-powered service that uses natural language understanding in data analysis.
But with so much on offer already, questions are being raised as to where Watson will go next.
Lauri Saft (pictured), vice president of Watson Ecosystem at IBM, told V3 at IBM Insight 2015 in Las Vegas that the growth of Watson stems from three areas.
The first is its use in major projects, such as providing cognitive computing for big banks and the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Centre.
The second is the deployment of Watson by companies looking to apply its capabilities to internal data sets.
And the third is an ecosystem of developers and companies integrating Watson's cognitive capabilities into products and services.
It is the third area that will power Watson's future growth, according to Saft. "When we look at where all this exponential growth is coming from it is from that ecosystem," she said.
"I think we are up over 430 partners today who have either deployed [Watson], so they are out in the market making money with their cognitive application, or are building a cognitive app."
To fuel the ecosystem, Saft said that IBM will keep pushing out APIs to its partners so that they can find new ways in which to embed Watson into use cases specific to certain industries and applications.
As the community does more with Watson APIs, Saft said that IBM often observes the use of several APIs together for specific purposes such as social listening for marketing activity.
"We're seeing these patterns of APIs combined that the partners are using as recipes [for application development], and we are publishing these recipes back to the partner community," she said.
The goal is to get Watson used in as many areas and industries as possible, and create an ecosystem that has breadth as well as depth in how companies use cognitive computing.
"Our goal is to hand these tools over to partners to build [cognitive applications], not to inform our own roadmap of [products]," said Saft.
"When we look at the growth of Watson, the idea is how we can get this into the hands of everybody no matter their experience, be it in your doctor's office, training with your personal trainer, or with the retail associate you are interacting with."
IBM is constantly working on making Watson smarter and more expansive, powered by the firm's cloud platform.
Watson's natural language and machine learning capabilities have been used to carry out customer service activities in place of people, as seen in the unmanned Honest Café outlets in London.
V3 asked Saft whether a continuously learning Watson will lead to its replacing knowledge-based jobs normally carried out by humans.
Saft does not believe this to be the case. "This discussion comes up all the time and the answer is unequivocally no. Watson is meant to augment. It is meant to be an advisor to knowledge workers, to patients, to students," she said.
"The idea is how you can take the knowledge of your very best employees and encapsulate that from across your organisation and raise the mean for everybody else in the organisation."
Saft cited the example of a civil engineering firm that struggled to get its engineers to solve infrastructure problems in natural disaster zones in time to shore them up against future disasters.
Watson has been taught civil engineering so that it can gather large amounts of data about an area. This gives the engineers more time to take action, rather than attempting to manage overwhelming amounts of data themselves.
Saft explained that Watson's assistive role is increasingly important as it makes use of the growing amounts of digital data across companies and industries.
"The fundamental power of what Watson does is to tap into all that information that we don't have access to that we are drowning in today," she said.
"If you take Watson and apply it against [large data sets] you can take your employees and harness that information differently. It's not about where the job moves around, it's how you can take that employee and enable them to access the information they didn't have access to before, or couldn't humanly read through fast enough."
In many ways the future of Watson is very much in the hands of its users, yet at the same time it can overcome humanity's limitations and transform forever the way a vast variety organisations function.
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