Watson, IBM’s famous Jeopardy-playing AI, already seems plenty smart. It can help create new and unexpected recipes; help Africa figure out ways to improve its agricultural, educational, and medical systems; and help cure brain cancer. Oh, and it can swear up a freakin’ storm, too. But IBM isn’t done yet. The company is working on enhancing Watson’s capabilities, as well as bringing it to the commercial market.
Watson’s thrashing of its human opponents in Jeopardy was just the start. If you watch it play, you’ll notice that Watson’s intelligence is specifically designed for game show success. It’s got the format down, including the phraseology and the buzzing in, and it calculates the probability of its answers being correct, as well as other possible answers. But this isn’t really intelligence as much as it is glorified and speedy search engine use. IBM is working on making Watson better at answering questions, but not just by searching through data repositories—they want the system to be able to integrate knowledge and information based on previous questions and answers.
IBM enlisted 1,500 additional employees, largely engineers and marketing folk, to work on Watson. It also invested another $1 billion into enhancing its computing capabilities, despite Watson’s total revenue to date being a lot lower than IBM had hoped. This is because Watson’s skill set is still too game-show specific—or at least, not helpful enough in the real world.
A version of Watson’s software was made available to the public in May for use in customer service. In this role, is answers questions and conducts basic chatty conversations. They also made an “Ask Watson” button to accompany other websites and apps for the same purpose. Some companies, such as the Royal Bank of Canada and Nielsen, will give the Watson customer assistance plan a try. “Ask Watson” will run inside a data center, rather than on a single system, and each client will have its own independent version which, if all goes according to plan, will become more specialized the more it’s used. Each company will also essentially feed Watson its own documents, handbooks, procedural manuals, and more, just as the program assimilated Wikipedia before it appeared on Jeopardy.
IBM has run some contests to see how people could use Watson on their mobile devices. One of the winners created an app that allows it’s capabilities to be used with a stuffed animal so kids can talk to it and learn from it. The app would also harvest data from those conversations and provide it to teachers for help in assessing learning challenges and recommendations. It looks likely that we’ll be seeing Watson—or at least, iterations of this software—in many places in the coming years. So go ahead—ask Watson anything. You know you want to.