By Manoj Saxena
General manager, IBM Watson Solutions
When IBM’s Watson computer defeated two all-time champions of the Jeopardy! TV quiz show one year ago (Feb. 14-16), it was the culmination of an intensive four-year research effort by a team of IBM scientists. At the same time, it was the beginning of another quest—a campaign to turn the breakthrough technology into commercial offerings that have the potential to transform whole industries. (Suggestions? Tweet to #WhatShouldWatsonDoNext?)
I feel incredibly fortunate that I got the assignment of heading up the new business, called IBM Watson Solutions. That’s because I’m a serial entrepreneur at heart. Over the past 15 years, I started two software companies and later sold them—the second one to IBM. I stuck with Big Blue after the sale but dreamed of becoming an entrepreneur again some day. Now, my wish has come true—just not in the way I expected.
As general manager of IBM Watson Solutions, I’m running what is essentially a startup within IBM and, at the same time, my little company-within-a-company gets the benefit of IBM’s resources and patient investment philosophy.
We’ll need all of the passion of a startup and all of the patience and resourcefulness of a $100 billion corporate parent because we have an immensely challenging road ahead of us. Jeopardy! showcased Watson at play. What we’re doing now is all about putting Watson to work. (Here’s a CNET article on our efforts.)
First, we have to transform a software program designed to do one thing, play Jeopardy!, into a service that can be used to improve the quality and efficiency of healthcare, financial services, retail, telecommunications and many other industries. At the same time, we have to cultivate relationships with leading organizations in those industries and convince them to be our partners in developing the new applications for the technology. And, since few people have the skills necessary to create and run industry-specific services based on Watson, we have to help build an educational ecosystem that produces a deep talent pool of people with those next-generation skills.
Healthcare is our first target market. It’s an industry that’s ripe for transformation. In the United States, healthcare costs society more than $2.5 trillion a year, yet the country ranks far down the list in terms of healthcare system performance. Too many people die or suffer unnecessarily from incorrect diagnoses and ineffective treatments.
Watson can help in multiple ways. Already we’re working with WellPoint, one of the nation’s largest health benefits companies, to make it possible for Watson to digest millions of pages of research, incorporate the best clinical practices and monitor outcomes to help doctors treat cancer patients. We anticipate that the technology will next be applied to other diseases and could eventually become a ubiquitous bedside and office-visit assistant for doctors and nurses—enabling them to deliver truly personalized care to everyone they serve.
Watson’s potential to help transform the healthcare industry is especially meaningful to me. My mother, who was a doctor in our native India and now lives with my family in Austin, began showing symptoms of dementia two years ago. I’m witnessing close up the decline of a person who was the model of a vibrant, strong professional woman and parent. Now she’s wandering into a fog. It’s tragic. And it didn’t have to be this way. We need new tools to help physicians understand and prevent diseases, and Watson promises to be an important new tool in that battle. I don’t want others to experience what my mother is going through right now.
The first version of Watson beat humans at a challenging mind game. The next versions will help us solve some of our most complex problems and, in the process, alter the way we live and work. That’s the stuff an entrepreneur’s dreams are made of.