By Michael Karasick
When IBM Watson was first created, it was designed to use English and to answer “factoid” questions. Since then, as we expand Watson’s capabilities to transform industries and professions, we are adapting it for other languages and forging strategic alliances to accelerate adoption globally.
Our alliance with Japan’s SoftBank, announced today, is a powerful example of both of those imperatives at work.
SoftBank, one of the most innovative companies in Japan, has signed on as our strategic partner to help introduce Watson and cognitive computing to the world’s third-largest economy. We’re working with SoftBank to train Watson to “think in” Japanese, and SoftBank will build a powerful ecosystem of partners, including entrepreneurs, app developers and venture investors; as well as take its own Watson-based applications and services to market. SoftBank is a vast holding company with thousands of subsidiaries. It owns Yahoo! Japan, operates one of the largest wireless communications systems in Japan, and controls computer games, robotics and education subsidiaries. We wanted a strategic partner in Japan so we could accelerate adoption there, and we chose SoftBank because of its aggressiveness, innovation and broad reach.
Our two companies will focus initially on a handful of markets, including healthcare, banking, insurance and retailing. But we also expect to address the telecommunications, auto, and robotics industries in Japan. Softbank understands the Japanese market extremely well, and I’m expecting to be surprised at some of the innovative new uses they and their partners find for Watson.
Cognitive systems are warmly anticipated in Japan. When I traveled to Tokyo 10 months ago to meet with an IBM Watson innovations team, they introduced me to IBM clients who are avidly interested in adopting the technology. Later, 35 Japanese executives who visited IBM in New York City expressed a keen interest in Watson.
Japan has long been a hotbed of innovation in artificial intelligence, and, as a result of its declining birthrate, the country embraces the idea of putting robots and other smart systems to work to help with everything from manufacturing to assisting the elderly and teaching the young.
SoftBank is already at work exploring how robots could take advantage of Watson technology. I saw one in action in our Austin lab a few weeks ago. A cute contraption with arms, legs and blinking eyes, the machine sang Happy Birthday to the Watson Group on our Jan. 9 birthday. It was quite the heartfelt rendition!
That demonstration was conducted in English, of course. Translating Watson’s smarts into Japanese is quite the challenge. For one thing, Japanese uses characters rather than a Western alphabet. To take on non-English languages, we rebuilt the language parser in the Watson question-answering engine. Also, since it’s critical for Watson to understand the idioms of all of the major languages, we’re beefing up the training process. It will learn new languages largely through experience and practice, rather than just being programmed to understand them. We expect to be able to produce a Japanese version by the end of the year.
Like IBM, SoftBank has a strong sense of urgency, but, also, like IBM, it takes a long-term view of innovation and market development. SoftBank’s leaders are looking for opportunities to build applications and systems that have the potential to transform Japanese businesses, the economy and society. Also, like us, they are committed to the idea of engaging in ethical uses of cognitive technologies–new capabilities designed to benefit humankind. Our relationship with SoftBank represents a new departure for us. You can think of the company as our Watson franchisee in Japan.
We’re looking for other similar partnerships around the globe–in order to bring the benefits of this new era of computing to organizations and people everywhere.
To learn more about the new era of computing, read Smart Machines: IBM’s Watson and the Era of Cognitive Systems.
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