What’s next for IBM’s Watson supercomputer now that the Jeopardy! challenge is over?

IBM Canada event for Watson Jeopardy screeningLast night, IBM’s supercomputer “Watson” named after the company founder, Thomas J. Watson, defeated Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter in the final round of a 3-night competition on Jeopardy!. The television event showcased what’s possible in just four years of speedy scientific research and development to produce a highly advanced Question Answering (QA) system. IBM Canada hosted an exclusive screening of the event at the CBC Broadcast Centre in Toronto to talk about future applications of the Watson system with their clients. 

The idea to host the final round screening in Toronto, which Watson mistakenly identified as a US city in the “Final Jeopardy!” question the previous evening, was very fitting in that many of Watson’s components are actually manufactured in Canada. Watson stores vast amounts of its data on IBM’s DB2 data servers which are developed at a lab in Toronto, Ontario. In addition, Watson’s real-time analytics processing power and ability to understand the subtle nuances of the clues comes from the IBM Power7 chip which is manufactured at their Bromont, Quebec location. Finally, the supercomputer’s ability to react quickly to the Jeopardy! clues can be attributed to the IBM high performance Virtual Machine technology produced by Ottawa, Ontario’s Cognos Inc., which was acquired by IBM in 2008.

To date, a lot of the media has focused on the “man versus machine” aspect of the Jeopardy! challenge. However, it was interesting to hear IBM Canada’s President Bruce Ross and Senior IBM Researcher Marshall Schor speak about how Watson will actually be able to help humanity, rather than try to become our “overlord” as Ken Jennings joked about on last night’s show. Below are some of the possible future applications of the technology that were discussed at last night’s IBM screening event.

Business impact

Bruce Ross and Marshall Schor highlighted a number of the business uses for the IBM Watson system. One of the most obvious applications seems to be in assisting help desks and call centres to answer simple questions for customers and technology users quickly – without having to wait to speak to someone on the phone. However, a spokesperson for IBM did tell me that they recognize that there will always be a need for human interaction to help solve complicated issues.

So, it doesn’t sound like computers will replace people all together in this case. However, perhaps talking to Watson the next time you call up Bell or Rogers will actually get you a better answer since Watson clearly knew more of the answers than the humans last night.

Healthcare implications

The other major use for Watson, which Bruce Ross mentioned a number of times last night, is the ability to be an assistant to healthcare workers. The idea would be that since Watson can understand subtle nuances, it may be able to assist Doctors to diagnose a patient’s symptoms and identify chronic diseases faster so that patients get the proper treatment that they need. So, perhaps that means that fewer patients will turn to Doctor Google to help them identify their ailment when they don’t trust their own doctor.

On the topic of Doctor Google, there has been a lot of buzz online recently in comparing Watson’s technology to Google. In addition, there has been speculation about whether IBM would ever try to compete with Google. So, I asked Bruce Ross about whether IBM plans to do so. He said that IBM only sees offline applications of their technology at this time. Marshall Schor also pointed out that Watson is only focused on delivering the one, most accurate answer to the customer, rather than providing a list of possible answers for the user to choose from like Google does. 

Here’s an IBM video explaining how Watson can assist in diagnosing health conditions: