What’s next for Watson?

  • Rachel Duk

IBM is continuing to invest heavily in Watson, and as this iconic gentleman of the cognitive computing scene approaches his second decade, he’s embarking on something of an image makeover. In short: Watson’s getting serious.

By IBM’s own admission Watson was created under pressure; the firm wanted to showcase its technological prowess to the world. And while Watson certainly dazzled—winning the quiz show ‘Jeopardy!’ in 2011 against human competitors—at his core was a man of far less substance than the Watson we see today. Watson is still out to cause a stir, but his realm has moved beyond the desktop and he is now making waves across diverse fields—including retail, aviation and even oncology.

But while Watson may have had a head start, technology powerhouses are rapidly closing ranks with AI systems of their own. From Microsoft’s ‘Project Oxford’ to Google’s ‘DeepMind’, there is no shortage of confident upstarts with ambitions to de-throne the king. Indeed, Watson’s critics would point to the limitations of Watson, whose core capabilities remain in the field of information storing and natural language processing.

To remain competitive, Watson is getting by with a little help from his friends. One of Watson’s most appealing features is his ability to link numerous platforms together—from leading RPA solution BluePrism, to translation services via Google—all hidden under a single customer-friendly interface. But while this ecosystem gives Watson breadth, it’s his human counterparts that give him his depth. Human interaction gives him the three things he needs to thrive: knowledge, know-how and personality. The more intelligence Watson is given from his human chums, the more he can give back. Left alone, he’s unable to develop his capabilities or improve his levels of accuracy. And this need for constant nurturing can be the very thing that closes off the lower ranks of the market for Watson, where smaller clients just don’t have the money or resources to pour into such a platform.

In the course of interviewing almost five hundred senior consultants in 2017, it became clear to us that a common understanding of cognitive computing, AI and robotics is still forming. And while this challenge is far from unique, IBM’s current habit of variously terming Watson as ‘cognitive computing’ and ‘AI’ could have deep implications for the firm. It’s vital that everyone at IBM projects a consistent message about Watson into the market. The firm needs to be clear about what Watson can deliver and whether his relevance extends to practical solutions for clients of any size. There’s no denying that Watson is a man of many talents with a passionate team behind him. But with IBM making an aggressive push to become the worlds’ biggest service provider within five years, it must find the answers to its most critical question: What’s next for Watson?