People were impressed when IBM’s Watson question-and-answer computer beat the two former champions at the Jeopardy! TV quiz show. Now they’re asking: what else can it do?
The company’s researchers and business leaders have been busy searching commercial uses for the technology, and they’re making progress. David Ferrucci, the IBM Fellow who heads up the Watson project, today told a group of journalists and analysts at a briefing on Big Data at IBM Research that the healthcare field is especially promising. IBM is developing applications in collaboration with physicians and researchers at Columbia University and the University of Maryland. Meanwhile, it took one researcher just three months to adapt the Watson Jeopardy! database to the medical field. Presumably, adaptations to other domains will be relatively easy, as well.
But a big issue is affordability. Watson is “embarrassingly parallel,” in computer science parlance—meaning the machine uses thousands of high-performance microprocessors. Embarrassing parallelism is expensive.
During a break form the briefing, I asked Ferrucci and other IBM colleagues about the affordability issue. Ferrucci’s response was that the cost of computing is dropping rapidly, and that the more industries Watson can serve and the more applications that are running on the platform, the more affordable it will be for each individual client.
Rod Smith, another IBM Fellow who heads up the Emerging Internet Technologies group at IBM Research, told me that another key will be the simplicity of the user interface. If IBM can develop user-friendly interfaces, clients will get rapid adoption of the technology and rapid returns on their investments. So, even if the service is relatively expensive, it will be worth the price.
Another key to affordability will be setting up Watson services for specific industries as shared services offered from the computing cloud. That way, many clients can use the same application and the same computing resources, making the services highly efficient.
It has been just three months since the Jeopardy! contest, but, already, it’s clear that the Watson machine has a life after Jeopardy! In the months ahead we’ll find out whether it can play a major role in making the world work better.