By Michael Rhodin
It takes the pharmaceutical industry an average of 12 years and more than $1 billion to bring a new drug from the lab to your local pharmacy. The laborious process crimps productivity for the industry and delays the arrival of life-saving treatments for patients. But what if pharma companies could spot promising new drug candidates much more quickly? Everybody wins.
Well, just such a speed-up is on the way. A new cloud service, the IBM Watson Discovery Advisor harnesses the power of IBM Watson, making it possible for scientists to accelerate the research process by drawing insights from a vast universe of medical, chemical and genetic information and more quickly identify promising molecules.
This advance signals a critical turning point in the evolution of information technology. We’re at the dawn of a new era, the era of cognitive computing, where computers that learn and reason are helping us make sense of the deluge of Big Data so we can make better decisions. Because these systems learn from their interactions with humans and data, they actually gain value over time.
To make the most of this opportunity, IBM CEO Ginni Rometty is forming a new business unit, the IBM Watson Group, with the goal of boosting the development and adoption of cloud-delivered cognitive applications and services. These innovations will span industries and professions, and touch the lives of individuals everywhere—helping to drive progress for businesses and society.
Watson shocked the world three years ago by beating two grand-champions on the TV quiz show Jeopardy! Shortly thereafter, we created a startup within IBM to build a new business around the technology. In doing so, we uniquely positioned ourselves to lead the tech industry’s efforts to commercialize cognitive computing. Now our startup is all grown up–a full-fledged business unit.
IBM Watson Group is being launched with an initial investment of more than $1 billion and a staff of 2,000 professionals. And that’s just the start. The uses for cognitive systems and services are going to be endless. The group will be headquartered in New York City’s Silicon Alley so we can both tap into and feed the energy of the city’s tech industry.
IBM is by no means taking this journey alone. We believe that a sustained burst of creativity by academic scientists, students, startup entrepreneurs and established tech companies will be required to fulfill the potential of new cognitive computing technologies. That’s why we have created and begun nurturing an ecosystem of organizations that share our goals. People say, “It takes a village to raise a child.” In this case, it will take a global village to deliver on the promise of cognitive computing.
One of our first steps along these lines came last November when we announced the IBM Watson Developers Cloud, a marketplace where application providers of all sizes and industries will be able to tap into resources for developing Watson-powered apps. So far, more than 750 companies have asked to participate, and three partners are already testing Watson-powered apps, including Fluid’s, which will transform how consumers shop; MD Buyline’s, which will enable hospitals to more effectively procure medical equipment; and Welltok’s, which will help health plans better engage their members.
IBM’s new business unit will push the ecosystem idea further. We’re setting aside commitments of $100 million in venture investments to support startups and businesses that are building a new class of cognitive apps powered by Watson in the IBM Watson Developers Cloud. And our New York City headquarters will serve as an innovation hub offering the technology, tools and talent to create and launch new products and businesses based on Watson’s cognitive intelligence.
Organizationally, IBM Watson Group is designed for speed. It’s vertically integrated, combining research, services, software and systems, as well as industry experts–making it easy for clients and partners to deal with as a one-stop-shop.
A lot has happened in a short amount of time since Watson won Jeopardy! We have been busy transforming Watson from a game-playing innovation into a robust technology platform capable of handling a wide variety of real-world applications. We have also converted the technology so its available anywhere, on devices ranging from smartphones to desktop computers, via the magic of cloud computing.
At this point, the Watson technology stands out as one of the most significant inventions in IBM’s history. In concert with mobile, social and big data analytics technologies, it’s capable of transforming whole industries and improving the performance of the professionals who are essential to them.
First, IBM took on one of society’s most vexing industries, healthcare, and one of the greatest challenges, cancer. We partnered with a number of health care organizations such as Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, Cleveland Clinic, WellPoint and MD Anderson Cancer Center to harness Watson technology to help improve how medicine is taught, practiced and paid for. These collaborations have shown steady progress, though there’s still a lot of work to do.
In May 2013, we unveiled the IBM Watson Engagement Advisor, a service designed to help brands crunch big data in record time to transform the way they engage clients in key functions such as customer service, marketing and sales. We see it as a game-changer for the Chief Marketing Officer.
Today, with our announcement of IBM Watson Group, we’re also unveiling three new offerings. Watson Discovery Advisor, which I described at the beginning of this blog post, is designed to accelerate and strengthen research projects. A second service, IBM Watson Analytics, combines Watson’s search capabilities with advanced data visualization technology, making it easier for people to mine nuggets of insight from Big Data. People with different areas of expertise can see data expressed in the ways that’s most meaningful to them. The third offering, IBM Watson Explorer, helps users across an enterprise uncover and share data-driven insights more easily, while enabling organizations to launch Big Data initiatives much faster. All three services are delivered via the cloud.
IBM is accustomed to playing a leading role in major technology shifts. We designed some of the first fully electronic computers in the 1940s, took computing mainstream with the System/360 in the 1960s, helped transform the personal computer from a hobbyist’s toy to a business machine with the IBM PC in the 1980s, and made the Internet work for the enterprise in the 1990s. Now we’re leading again in the shift to cognitive computing applications and services.
I can honestly say that I have never been more excited about the prospects for the future. Because of these new cognitive technologies, applications and services will augment our intelligence and help us deal with complexities and floods of data that we can’t possibly handle on our own. They will be true partners in helping us solve our problems, making organizations operate more effectively, and addressing some of the challenges that have long confounded society—such as cancer and environmental sustainability. As with the Internet, it’s impossible to over-hype cognitive computing. It will transform business and society in ways we can’t even begin to predict.
Right now we’re in the early stages of a long journey. I am sure that decades from now we’ll look back on this time and marvel at how far we have come. I’m grateful to have the opportunity to be part of it.
(If you want to learn more about the new era of computing read Smart Machines: IBM’s Watson and the Era of Cognitive Systems.)