IBM's Watson Brings Cognitive Computing to Customer Engagement

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conversation, Dahl says. The current Watson Engagement Advisor lacks the ability to collaborate with the customer on resolving an issue, taking an order, helping shop for a product, or troubleshooting a problem, she states. "In those kinds of situations, Watson will need to be able to proactively ask questions," she says. "Right now, Watson's focused on in-depth answers to specific, one-off questions that don't relate to each other."

Also critical to Watson's success as a customer service tool will be its ability to link to other systems and data sources. Dahl says developers will need to be able to connect Watson's language understanding abilities to business rules and enterprise-level structured information. "This," she points out, "will allow Watson to do things like find and talk about customer-specific data, including addresses, purchase history, and preferred-customer status."

Eventually, IBM expects the Watson Engagement Advisor to be used for additional purposes, such as helping customers book travel plans. "Customer engagement is a natural fit for Watson, which can instantly create a strong bond between who customers are as individuals and what types of information will help them reach their goals," Manoj Saxena, general manager of IBM Watson Solutions, said in a statement.

Developing with Watson

Since Watson's appearance on Jeopardy!, IBM claims to have improved its system performance by 240 percent and reduced the physical requirements needed to run it by 75 percent. Watson reportedly can be put down on a single server today, opening up a whole new world of opportunity on how and where it can be put to work.

Additionally, IBM has revealed more than a dozen partners across a number of industries with whom it is working on developing new big data analytics programs using the Watson technology.

Other industries finding uses for the Watson computing platform have included the medical field, with Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, the University of Texas' M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, and several other top hospitals fielding it to help doctors design the best course of cancer treatment based on the latest clinical research and patient data. The product being used, Interactive Care Insights for Oncology, developed through collaboration between IBM and Sloan-Kettering, is expected to launch as a commercial product for hospitals and cancer care providers later this year.

In the insurance sector, IBM has worked with WellPoint to create an app that looks at a patient's medical history prior to processing a medical claim to determine if the treatment request is in line with company policy. And in financial services, IBM is working with banking firm Citi to deploy Watson as a financial adviser.

For other organizations looking to leverage Watson's capabilities, IBM in November launched the Watson Developers' Cloud, designed to help entrepreneurial software developers create new applications infused with Watson's cognitive computing intelligence. The Developers' Cloud includes a developer toolkit, educational materials, and access to Watson's application programming interface.

Fluid, an Internet start-up that helps brands develop personalized shopping experiences, later this year hopes to release the Expert Personal Shopper (XPS) app powered by IBM Watson to offer consumers assistance in their purchase decisions. The app is expected to draw data from underlying sources, such as product information, customer loyalty data, sales histories, user reviews, blogs, and relevant magazines and other publications, to give users a highly enriched and personalized shopping experience. Fluid XPS, which the company hopes will be able to accept voice or text inputs, will be able to have conversations with customers and then recommend clothing based on their tastes.

Fluid has been experimenting with a prototype of the XPS app for The North Face. Called the Compass Gear Advisor, the app acts like an experienced in-store salesperson to help customers find the right coat or outdoor apparel for their particular needs.

MD Buyline, a Dallas-based medical supply company, plans to launch Hippocrates, a Watson-powered app that will help doctors make more informed medical equipment purchases. Welltok, a Denver-based social health management company, is bringing Watson technology to its collaborative app Cafe Well Concierge to help consumers craft personal healthcare programs based on their medical conditions and available information related to those conditions.

Showing its commitment to the development community, in early January, IBM launched the IBM Watson Group, a business unit dedicated to the development and commercialization of cognitive computing innovations delivered through the cloud. As part of this initiative, IBM allocated $1 billion to the IBM Watson Group. This will include more than $100 million available for venture investments to support IBM's ecosystem of start-ups and businesses building new Watson applications in the IBM Watson Developers' Cloud.

Looking Ahead

IBM CEO Ginni Rometty in October said publicly that two new versions of Watson are in the pipeline. Watson 2.0 will be able to scan pictures, including X rays, and interpret them. Watson 3.0 will have the ability to debate and reason.

"The current technology already handles all types of queries that customers of an enterprise ask of the enterprise," the IBM Research team member in India said in an email. "We are definitely already building Watson systems for self-service that are automatically interacting with humans. We are, in parallel, advancing the state of the art of such interactions with more natural and intuitive interactions."

Dahl is optimistic about the future of IBM's Watson. "Augmented with speech recognition, conversational skills, and application integration capabilities, I believe Watson will become a central technology in future customer engagement applications," she says.

News Editor Leonard Klie can be reached at lklie@infotoday.com.

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