IBM bets that its Watson technology will ride the cognitive-computing wave to commercial success -- while rivals gear up for the connected-computing era.
Two big names in technology held events in New York this week to declare the beginning of a third big wave in computing, but they were talking about different waves.
On Wednesday, Salesforce.com welcomed in the connected computing era, pointing to mobile, social, cloud, and billions of connected sensors and devices as things that will transform our personal lives, industries, and the ways organizations interact with individuals. Giving its own spin to the Internet of Things, Salesforce talked up the "Internet of Customers," seeing connected aircraft engines, cars, appliances, tablets, phones, wrist watches, and other devices as ultimately connected to somebody's customer.
On Thursday it was IBM's turn, and it asserted that the coming third wave will be the cognitive computing era. IBM's cognitive technology is Watson, which won its fame beating two grand champions at Jeopardy back in 2011. The key difference between cognitive computing and the programmable computing era that came before it is that it's not an "if-then" proposition, said IBM chairman, president and CEO Ginni Rometty.
"You had to program the computer to tell it what to do, and it is everything that you know [about computing] to this day," Rometty explained.
In the cognitive era that Rometty says IBM introduced with Watson, computers can learn, analyze, and reason in human-like ways. Watson understands natural language. It generates and evaluates hypotheses. It adapts to and learns new information. It's even learning to see, to hear, and to offer visual answers.
Cognitive computing would seem to be just what's needed in an era in which there is too much information. Healthcare organizations are hoping Watson can transform medicine by combing through mountains of medical research and patient-specific records to help doctors make accurate, personalized diagnoses and treatment decisions that take advantage of the latest available information. IBM partner Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York is training Watson as an Oncology Treatment Assistant. The Cleveland Clinic is using a system called WatsonPaths to support problem-based learning methods in its medical school. Executives from both institutions were on hand in New York to report on progress in their transformational deployments.
IBM CEO Ginni Rometty is doubling down on IBM's Watson bet with another $1 billion in investment.
Which Wave Is Bigger (Now)? To casual observers, Salesforce.com's version of the third-wave is more familiar, while cognitive computing might strike them more like a distant vision. All things mobile, social, and cloud have been the talk of the tech industry for years. Who isn't aware of Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and dueling generations of Androids and iPhones? More recently, cloud computing, big data, and The Internet of Things have entered the popular lexicon. What big tech vendor hasn't forged a strategy on these fronts?
IBM, too, is all over the connected-computing trends, but it's all but alone in pursuing cognitive computing. That's one reason IBM announced late last year that it's building an ecosystem for Watson, inviting in commercial partners and entrepreneurial developers, and funding seed work on real-world applications.
Since the Jeopardy victory in 2011, IBM has been working furiously to commercialize Watson. As the Wall Street Journal reported this week, it has been slow going, with $100 million in revenue thus far against the company's goal of reaching $1 billion in revenue by 2018.
IBM announced on Thursday that it's doubling down on its bet on Watson. It is creating a dedicated IBM Watson Group business unit that will have its own office in New York's East Village. The unit will ramp up from a few hundred employees currently to more than 1,000. IBM also said it will pump another $1 billion into the development of the technology, with a focus on "a series of solutions that can deliver value in months, not years," said Mike Rhodin, the IBM senior VP who is moving over from IBM's Software Group to head the new business.
Looking beyond the transformative work in industries such as health care and financial services, IBM is working on developing repeatable enterprise solutions and a development ecosystem to dream up yet more real-world applications.
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