by Delaney Turner
There’s been no shortage of speculation about what Watson’s Jeopardy! success means for real-world business now that the lights have dimmed on the replica set and Alex Trebek has returned to his familiar Hollywood haunts.
Industries as diverse as healthcare, advertising, law and finance have all been suggested as real-world proving grounds, with healthcare the closest to becoming a reality. To these excellent ideas I’d like to suggest how Watson could help in the area I know best: business analytics. Naturally, business analytics deployments abound across all these industries and more, so by extension the benefits I outline here apply more broadly than one software category.
Broadly speaking, I see at least four connections between Watson and business analytics:
First, it’s all about confidence; specifically, higher confidence. Lead Watson researcher David Ferrucci summed it up this way: “If you don’t know the answer, don’t buzz in.” Watson’s confidence algorithms prevented it from embarrassing itself on national television, but there’s a business lesson in there as well. Applying that principle to your own situation may keep you under your executives’ radar, but it’s hardly the way to build your own credibility or demonstrate results, particularly when you’re requesting scarce funds for a new project or defending one from getting axed.
Now think about Watson, which calibrates its buzz-in response times to its confidence level. In both games it displayed an astoundingly high degree of confidence, in some cases buzzing in in less than 10 milliseconds. Think of the confidence you’d gain and the resulting benefits you’d see with Watson at your command – especially if the answers you need aren’t hiding in cryptic categories like “Magical Mouse-Tery Tour “ and “Literary Character APB.”
Second, Watson reduces ambiguity. Data is by its very nature a “Yes/No” proposition, driven as it is by trillions of transistors that have no choice but to switch on or off. Unfortunately, the humans I know live in the messy world between these two absolutes. This is the land of “sometimes,” “maybe” and “it depends on the context”. To borrow the familiar phrase from Cool Hand Luke, “What we [often] have here is a failure to communicate.”
Think of your own situation: What does ideal customer mean to IT? To a sales rep? To your CFO? As a bold leap forward in natural language processing, Watson holds the promise of connecting the hard logic of our digital world with the less-than-logical way that humans actually communicate and making that connection widely available. It’s a close parallel to the IT-Business and IT-Finance relationships at the core of the best business analytics deployments. I’ve spoken to dozens of customers over my career and they all agree that the better these two worlds understand each other, the better the outcomes for everyone involved.
Third, Watson brings sanity to an insane amount of data. You don’t need me to remind you of the data deluge out there, or of the hours you lose every day trying to answer even the simple questions. How much did you spend with that supplier? Who are your most profitable customers? Who are your top-performing employees?
Now think about Watson – to find the right answer it had to comb through terabytes of disconnected text, images and statistics and combine them in different ways, over and over, in a split-second and with confidence, against tough and motivated competition. Watson could redefine performance under pressure and help you become the “go-to person” for instant insights.
Finally, Watson is a bold, visionary project. Nothing like it has never been done before. It’s ambitious. It aims to solve an area of computing that’s yet to be solved. It’s led by visionaries who aren’t afraid to break boundaries and tackle the next IBM Grand Challenge. IBM Fellow John Cohn puts our current “Age of Analytics” on par with the Ages of Iron and Atomic power. Insights are the new iron.
As it enters its second century, IBM is redefining the possible to drive tremendous advances in knowledge and significant improvements in business outcomes and our quality of life. The proven ability of business analytics to drive better business outcomes is central to building a Smarter Planet.
That’s why Watson is important and why I’m excited to write about it in this context. Your business analytics deployment may not have such lofty goals, but I see the same ambition, energy and willingness to ask bold questions in the Watson team as I do in our most successful and enthusiastic customers.
Who did I root for? The Romantic in me held out for the triumph of the human; the Optimist was excited about the potential in the machine. After all, if we can leave this much heavy analytical lifting to a computer that never gets tired, how much further could we all go as a result?
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Delaney Turner is Worldwide Marketing Manager for IBM Business Analytics.