PC & Servers

IBM Breeds New Business Unit To Feed Watson

IBM is investing more than $1 billion in a new business unit. It's banking on a market for cognitive computing services that actually learn and reason.

A New York City press conference marked the official launch of an IBM unit based on Watson, the computer best known for defeating human Jeopardy champions in 2011. This unit is dedicated to selling Watson's natural language, machine learning-based services to enterprises.

At the event, IBM CEO Ginny Rometty invoked a word that biologists would typically reserve for organic life forms. Watson's latest incarnation is "a new species, if I can call it that," she said. "It is taught; it is not programmed. By design, it learns by experience, and it learns from interaction. And by design, it gets smarter over time and makes better judgments over time."

Since its landmark day in the history of trivia, IBM has built exclusive business relationships with partners to produce pioneering applications for its cognitive engine -- applications that involve decision-making advice. Given unfathomable mountains of input data gleaned from natural language publications, Watson can generate best-fit scenarios that resolve natural language queries with varying degrees of probable certainty.

Now the company is taking its first steps toward opening those services up to less exclusive markets. For example, it's reaching beyond a few select healthcare partners, such as Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center and the Cleveland Clinic, and to the healthcare industry as a whole.

At the press conference, Cleveland Clinic chief innovation officer Dr. Tom Graham said his group's collaboration with IBM has produced an application capable of sifting through an enormous quantity of daily medical publications and interacting directly with students and refining its diagnosis capability through direct conversation. "Innovation happens at the intersection of knowledge domains," he said. "So if you have a partner that has these competencies, to discover and evidence all the passive information you may need and can understand you... I call this the virtuous cycle."

The announcement marks the beginning of IBM steering its Watson marketing message away from the story of a machine -- a mainframe-like entity, like HAL 9000, with its own speaking voice -- and toward the story of a service. IBM's online documents have already begun characterizing Watson's 2011 relationship with the company's Power 750 servers in the past tense, suggesting its "reasoning" center may have since moved to a newer base. Earlier, IBM revealed that Watson was hosted on a cluster of 90 Power 750 servers, each with four Power 7 processors with eight cores apiece.

IBM has since released its Power 7+ processor series with up to 20% more clock speed. The Power 750s that hosted the Jeopardy champion are now commercially available only in the 750 Express power-saving configuration. There's a good chance IBM has already upgraded Watson to a newer and more formidable host, though the company may not be ready to publicly disclose its configuration.

In its new guise as a service, Watson will continue to be cultivated through direct, personalized partnerships. IBM also announced the launch of a "public" applications ecosystem, Digital Life Labs, that will include third-party developers in the production of resalable cognitive applications -- "cogs," as IBM calls them. At press time, the company had not elaborated on the meaning of "public" and whether any would-be developer might have access.

There will be cloud-based, Watson-branded services, but IBM called them supplemental to direct, human partnerships. Watson Discovery Advisor will provide a common interface for clients needing to interact with the system. And Watson Analytics and Watson Explorer will enter beta testing to provide dashboard-style summaries of large data sets, putting Watson in competition with cloud-based BI providers such as Tableau and Roambi.

Mike Rhodin, IBM's senior vice president in charge of the new Watson group, cited big data services such as its Hadoop distribution and how they link to the emerging Watson service platform. "Everybody wants to work with Watson, but not everybody is ready for Watson. One of the key problems is how do you sort through all of your information, all of your data?"

Rhodin presented a list of services that would help big data become more "digestible" for Watson, helping to feed it more carefully and with discretion. Yet he also said Watson has attained at least one capability once held exclusively by humans. Watson Explorer "is another key, important product in what's becoming a system. It's not just a question-and-answer thing anymore... It reasons. It explores. It visualizes. It analyzes." In Watson, we are witnessing the evolution of "the cognitive computing platform of the future."

Scott M. Fulton, III, is principal and senior partner of Ingenus. He has been an editor and producer of online news and educational materials and author of instructional books and multimedia since 1984.