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msaxenaManoj Saxena, who joined IBM in 2006 through the Webify Solutions acquisition (a company he founded in 2002 and led as its chairman, president and chief executive officer), was recently named the general manager of IBM Watson Solutions.

His new task is finding, creating and scaling new markets for Watson’s DeepQA technology. The smarter planet team asked him a few questions about how his team plans to put Watson to work.

What are you looking forward to as the first Watson Solutions General Manager?

Manoj Saxena: Watson provides us an opportunity at a scale and scope that only comes along once in a very long while. One of the things I love the most is shaping and creating markets around disruptive technologies. And I have had the good fortune of being able to do that in the five years I have been at IBM, and the seven years before that through the two software startups I had founded.

With Watson, I envision an entire new class of business solutions and cloud-based services that can interpret natural language; incorporate new structured and unstructured information; and derive associations and patterns that bridge the IT-business gap. CIOs and business executives will have to rethink how to add value to their businesses.

Watson’s capabilities will be particularly powerful for information-intensive industries such as healthcare, government, telecom and financial services — where the volume and variety of information is constantly changing. For example, some of Watson’s potential applications in healthcare include helping doctors and care providers reduce the time needed to evaluate and determine the correct diagnosis for a patient. It can also help create the next generation of electronic medical record systems, as well as diagnostic and decision support tools, to help provide doctors with treatment options tailored to a patient’s needs.

What was your role at IBM before taking this role?

MS: I was leading the strategy and market development efforts for the Industry and Cloud Business Solutions within IBM’s Software Solutions Group. Our focus was on creating and shaping new markets by taking new capabilities to Chief Procurement Officers, Chief Marketing Officers, and Chief Legal Officers.

In that role, my team was tracking Watson’s progress with much anticipation and looking for ways to combine Watson with our existing capabilities around Enterprise Content Management, Predictive Business Analytics and others.

What was your impression of Watson when you watched it played Jeopardy!?

MS: Watching Watson play Jeopardy! was a big moment for me and my entire family. During the first broadcast, I was at IBM Headquarters (in Armonk, NY) and met David Ferrucci – which I immediately texted my daughters about. They thought it was “uber-cool” and gave my family’s Watson-Jeopardy! viewing party some buzz.

During the competition I was filled with a sense of awe, excitement and pride. It was an amazing demonstration of how machines are evolving to assist humankind. The geek in me also started thinking of all the sub-systems and methods and tools that need to brought together to commercialize something like this.

How does Watson fit into IBM’s smarter planet vision?

MS: IBM’s smarter planet initiative helps businesses capture data — and its potential value — from a world that is getting more “instrumented, interconnected and intelligent.”  Watson is one of the key enablers of this vision. Here’s an example of Watson adding value to healthcare:

The body of medical knowledge is doubling every five years. Most of that information is unstructured data – research papers, nurses’ notes, doctors’ comments, prescriptions, etc. By using Watson as a physician’s and nurse’s assistant, we can help them find valuable insight in those notes to improve diagnosis and treatment and reduce cost of care.

For Watson to seamlessly assist a care provider, the actual solution must have interconnections into the devices they use, from voice transcription services, to medical devices, and electronic medical records.

What other challenges will Watson-based solutions have?

MS: We are in the early stages of commercializing this technology. Challenges range from selecting the right markets and solutions to go after first, to building a software and services delivery infrastructure.

We also need to develop skills, methods and tools to handle this new class of systems. The focus is not just on speed and latency now, but also on accuracy and confidence of the answers being generated.

Commercializing Watson will be like leading a startup in many ways – but at a faster pace. We will need to cover in three or four months what a typical start up would normally build up in a year. Overall, the journey for realizing the full value of Watson will take five, seven, or maybe as many as 10 years.

How will Watson change IT?

Watson’s capability to support natural language queries using deep syntactic and semantic technologies to produce and evaluate evidence from unstructured content opens up an entire new set of business solutions. CIOs and IT executives will think differently about ways to improve human decision processes, and reduce costs and cycle times. It will also require them to add new sets of skills, methods and tools within their IT organization.

Unlike traditional database applications, there is no formal schema or formal query language driving Watson-based services and applications. They are powered by the relationship between the class of inquiries posed by users, and the nature of the content represented by potentially millions of unstructured documents. This shift will require CIOs and IT executives to add a new set of domain, content and learning skills to help train and grow Watson to take on more complex tasks – creating greater business value in time.

What about the hardware that Watson Solutions will require?

MS: Unlike traditional premise or cloud based IT applications, where the axiom of growth is based on scaling the number of end users and response time, Watson will focus on two additional dimensions – accuracy and confidence of the information being presented.

This “accuracy and precision requirement,” (as Dr. Ferrucci calls it) will require massively parallel systems architecture that facilitates the creation, integration and evaluation of independently developed algorithms and ontologies (that improve precision). We have a good start because we built the first iteration – a Jeopardy! playing machine. But to meet these accuracy and precision requirements of healthcare and beyond, will need new hardware and new supporting system architectures.

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What’s coming up in the near future with Watson? A Jeopardy! rematch?.

MS: The interest and excitement in Watson was even beyond what we anticipated. And while there won’t be a rematch, there will be a re-broadcast of the Watson Challenge, September 12-14.

We’ve built on the momentum of the game and are now shifting from “what is Watson?” to “Watson at work.” Look for healthcare pilots in the next six to nine months. It is going to be an exciting time ahead.

You can follow Manoj on Twitter, @manojsaxena.

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