By Steve Hamm
Picture yourself entering a popular e-commerce Web site or opening a mobile shopping app and being greeted immediately by a virtual shopping assistant that’s every bit as helpful as the best clerk you ever met in a brick-and-mortar store. Actually, better. This assistant knows everything there is to know about the store’s merchandise and the situations in which it’s used. But it’s also the ultimate personal shopper. It knows who you are and what you like, and it learns more from interacting with you and presents you choices in a visually engaging way.
That’s just the kind of experience that Fluid Inc., a San Francisco-based digital commerce company, plans on offering through its many e-commerce clients, starting with TheNorthFace.com.The technology underlying the service is IBM Watson, which created a splash two years ago when it defeated two grand-champions on the TV quiz show Jeopardy! Embedded within e-commerce Web sites, Watson has the potential to transform the online shopping experience.“Watson is a turning point in technology,” says Brooke Aguilar, vice-president for Fluid’s Watson application strategy. “It shows how consumers will engage with computers in the future.”
Watson started off as an IBM-only technology, but, as of today, the company has opened it up and is permitting companies large and small to embed Watson in their own services or build applications on top of it. The initiative, essentially an IBM Watson ecosystem, aims to create a large web network of companies that share the benefits of a common technology platform and the explosive network effects that can come via this kind of alliance.
We’ve seen technology ecosystems work magic before. During the PC Era, a vast network of application developers grew up around Microsoft’s Windows.Today, Google and Apple have huge smartphone app ecosystems. The IBM Watson ecosystem has the potential do something similar in the new era of computing—the era of cognitive systems. The ecosystem is designed to bring cognitive capabilities to a wide variety of industries and to eventually touch billions of people worldwide.If you want to learn more about the new era, download a free chapter of Smart Machines: IBM’s Watson and the Era of Cognitive Computing, at the Columbia University Press web site.A key component of the IBM’s Watson ecosystem is the Watson Developers Cloud. In this technology sandbox, organizations like Fluid can collaborate with IBM technologists to create new apps and services. There’s also a Watson Content Store, where companies connect with content providers whose data and information can augment Watson’s ever-expanding knowledge base. The ecosystem also taps into the ELance online community of more than 2.5 million freelancers with skills ranging from software development and Web site design development to writing and graphic design.
Here’s how some cloud service providers are harnessing Watson:
Fluid: You’ll be able to engage with their expert personal shopper by typing or speaking questions or comments into your laptop, tablet or smartphone. The assistant will not only engage you in a dialogue, but will also show you reviews, videos, and photographs and otherwise enrich your online shopping experience.
Say you’re on the TheNorthFace.com site. You’re planning a two-week camping trip to Wyoming’s Wind River mountain range in May. You could ask, “What gear and food will I need?” and learn what you’ll want to know so you can have a more safe and comfortable experience—such as the fact that it often snows in the Wind Rivers in springtime.
MD Buyline: This 30-year-old, Dallas-based company provides expert advice to 3,300 hospitals and healthcare systems concerning the selection and purchase of medical equipment, technology and consumable items.
The company is building an evaluation platform with IBM Watson at its core. The platform brings together the company’s vast database of client purchase activity, deep knowledge of clinical results, and feedback from top clinicians. Watson is the front end. It will provide analysis and recommendations about purchase decisions and will also gather input from doctors. “We are excited about the potential for using Watson’s capabilities to take best practices developed by individual healthcare organizations and making them available at scale across the global healthcare industry,” says Satin Mirchandani, MD Buyline’s chief executive.
Welltok: Based in Denver, Welltok operates CaféWell, a health optimization platform that enables people to improve their health via a combination of social networking, gaming and personalization technologies. Through Welltok’s customers, which are large healthcare organizations, the service has the potential to touch the lives of more than 20 million people.
Welltok’s CaféWell Concierge leverages IBM Watson to guide individuals through the process of learning about their health and modifying their lifestyles. It interacts with people through text or speech, guides them to personalized activities, content and communities, volunteers suggestions, and learns about them through interactions. Individuals earn rewards, including insurance premium discounts or copay reductions, for improving their health.
The company’s chief executive, Jeff Margolis, has spent nearly 20 years in the healthcare technology business, but his interest in improving the healthcare system is also personal. As a teenager, he was diagnosed with a serious illness, which led to a series of surgeries and still requires careful monitoring. “I’m on a mission,” he says. “We’re in the position to shift from sick care to proactively optimizing our health. Watson’s an accelerator. It’s groundbreaking.”
When Watson won on Jeopardy!, it created a sensation. But many people probably saw it as little more than a high-tech parlor trick. Not anymore. The ecosystem that IBM Watson is fueling shows that cognitive technology has great potential to have major impact in the world.
It’s early days, of course, but if the ecosystem takes off it will help usher in a new era of computing—transforming industries and improving people’s lives.
Watson is already being put to work in healthcare, financial services and retail.
Which begs the question: how would you put Watson to work? If you come up with a great idea, there may be a startup and a great app in your future.
For more on the IBM Watson Ecosystem effort read this.
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