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IBM's Watson Brings Cognitive Computing to Customer Engagement

While the technology is still new, early developments are piquing interest in its future potential.
By Leonard Klie - Posted Feb 10, 2014
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IBM proved to the world that it was able to overcome a grand challenge when, in 2011, its speech-enabled Watson supercomputer summarily trounced several champions on the TV game show Jeopardy!. Watson's victory demonstrated that computers could quickly process a vast amount of natural language content with a high degree of certainty.

Not surprisingly, businesses took notice and in May 2013, when IBM unveiled its Watson Engagement Advisor for customer interactions, five early adopters came on board. Among them were ANZ Banking Group and consumer research and ratings firm Nielsen, both of which signed on to explore how the IBM Watson Engagement Advisor could help enhance service to their customers.

A key tool of the Watson Engagement Advisor is Ask Watson, which lets customers speak directly to the technology through instant message, text message, email, Web chat, or a dedicated app on their mobile phones. IBM's Watson Engagement Advisor provides answers to questions that would otherwise have been fielded by a human operator.

At Nielsen, the Watson app will help advise those responsible for buying ads based on its ratings, letting them ask questions about how the company compiles its results or advising them on how to best spend their advertising dollars. The company also plans to apply the Watson technology to improve measurement of ad effectiveness and media planning.

For ANZ, Watson will be used to help customers with insurance plans, telling them where they might have too much coverage or not enough, based on an analysis of their policies. It also will be helping investment counselors tailor their offerings based on specific customer needs.

The other early adopters were Malaysian telecommunications provider Celcom, Royal Bank of Canada, and IT services provider IHS.

Analysts have also been impressed with Watson. Because Watson can listen and respond to a series of questions--including follow-up questions--and remember and learn from previous questions that were posed, Frost & Sullivan awarded the IBM Watson Engagement Advisor its 2013 North American Award for New Product Innovation in September. Gartner also cited Watson in its Top 10 Strategic Technology Trends for 2014 and predicts that by 2017, 10 percent of all computers will be able to learn from past interactions as Watson does.

Watson's Hurdles

Despite this recognition, the technology still has several hurdles to overcome. Currently, the Watson Engagement Advisor remains untested by a broad consumer audience, and reviews are mixed as to whether it's up to the customer service challenge, especially given its limited speech capabilities.

"IBM Watson is a revolutionary natural language understanding engine with sophisticated abilities for processing language and learning from existing texts," notes Deborah Dahl, principal at Conversational Technologies and chair of the World Wide Web Consortium's Multimodal Interaction Working Group. "It's likely to be a key component of future conversational systems with humanlike interaction abilities. However, several capabilities need to be added before Watson can be effectively applied to spoken interaction systems."

Technology writer and futurist Paul Gilster notes that while Watson's potential in customer service "is vast," it's likely that two

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