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#IBMWoW: Welcome to the World of Watson


It’s opening keynote time at IBM’s World of Watson 2016 and we kicked off with a video history of Watson from Jeopardy to today. Dr John Kelly of IBM got us started, emphasizing how rapidly interest in Watson has grown over the last year or two.  In August 2007, he says, a small team of researchers proposed to build an AI/Cognitive system – they felt they had the key techniques and technology developed to succeed even if many (all) previous attempts had failed. 5 years later Watson won its Jeopardy appearance.

Now, he says, Watson is starting to fundamentally change the way decision-making is done across many industries. In a few years, he says, things are going to really change – people making complex decisions will all want to consult a cognitive system to help them make a better one. Whether they are discussing mergers, considering a difficult cancer patient or something completely different. And beyond that, he thinks, Watson will begin to predict not just assist. But his focus remains on how Watson can and will help people make better decisions.

Tom Friedman, the author of The World is Flat, joined Dr Kelly on stage. He has been working on a new book called “Thank You For Being Late” – all about the value of giving people the time to pause in an era of acceleration. He told a great story about meeting a guy at a parking garage and interacting with him about how to write a column. He likes to provoke or illuminate with his columns which takes understanding one’s position on the world, how one things the world works and what you think about this.

Right now he sees the way the world “machine” works changing – the digital globalization of the market, Moore’s Law and technology and the rapid change of nature due to climate change and population growth. All three are hockey-stick graphs and all three interact with each other.  As he was looking at this he saw that 2007 was an important year – the iPhone, Facebook, Google buying Youtube, the price of sequencing a genome or solar power fell off cliffs, Intel moved off Silicon and much more – and IBM’s researchers started Watson. He thinks 2007 was a technology inflexion point – and we missed it because of the crash of 2008. In addition, the political impact of this was that much of the social and legal framework needed to cope with this change did not get built and so there is a major disconnect.

All of this technology change gets lumped into the cloud but he finds this too “soft” a word as it is really a supernova of change. Storage, compute power, connectivity all came together in 2007 to deliver an invisible technology platform. This changes four things – it changes:

  • Power of 1 person to build or break is greater than ever
  • Power of many, of groups,  to change the world is greater
  • Power of flow as ideas flow around the world
  • Power of machines

And the power of machines was demonstrated by Watson winning Jeopardy in 2011. And the world was never the same since…

Politics, geopolitics, the workplace, ethics and community are all being dramatically changed by these trends of market, nature, and technology. The challenge is how to reimagine them. He talked briefly about three of them:

  • For the workplace, for instance, has to figure out how machine technology and AI are going to change things – how to use intelligent assistance to change people’s jobs. This means new skills, continuous learning by employees and much more.
  • Politics is being blown up as things change – the parties were structured around old problems and not about these challenges of climate, technology and globalization. He used nature as an example of coping with change – sustainable, experimental, fill niches, patient, willing to kill failures etc. Politics, he says, is going to be overrun by the pace of change and only parties that can be adaptive to this new world will survive…
  •  Ethics is also going to change. As everything we do becomes digital – friendships, relationships, work and much more – we need to rethink value systems to work in this connected but not hierarchical environment. The power of one person in this environment is completely different – to make or to break everything. This means that how people think and act – their ethical view – really matters. We have to scale the golden rule – do unto others as you would have others do to you – to include everyone. Family, values, teaching, ethics all really matter.

A great speaker and a great speech. David Kenny, GM of Watson, drew the short straw and had to follow Tom.

David reiterated the focus on augmentation – that AI is augmented intelligence rather than artificial intelligence. We have a long history of using technology to augment our cognitive capabilities. As the world becomes awash in data the need to apply analytics and cognitive to make better decisions becomes even more important. David reiterated the four elements that IBM sees supporting this:

  • Cloud – the IBM cloud and hybrid cloud particularly
  • Content – managing both structured data and unstructured text and content
  • Compute – algorithms and services to understand and extract value from this content
  • Conversation –  human ways to work with these elements in conversational applications

Watson must be able to understand language, reason at scale, interact naturally – this last includes some new announcements for Apple iOS applications that can be connected to Watson. David used a few customer stories to illustrate Watson:

  • Bradesco, a South American bank, recently used Watson to support mobile applications and connected it to their legacy applications so employees could support customers more effectively.
  • Staples illustrated their Watson powered “easy button” – offering a chat bot or text or audio to help their staff and their customers. It handles more and more transactions, freeing customer service staff to work on more complex problems.
  • GSK – Theraflu – uses Watson to power an interactive tool for helping people find out how over the counter medicine might help or if they need something more. By answering questions they hope to help but also build brand loyalty.
  • KPMG uses Watson in its audit practice using it to help auditors find very detailed information about loan portfolios for instance and presenting it in a traditional format and with explanation/justification.
  • OmniEarth discussed how they work with municipalities to converse water, especially outdoor watering. Satellite and other image data is processed. Watson is used to process the images and classify surfaces to see how much water is being used.

Pearson (publisher of both Smart (Enough) Systems and Decision Management Systems) came up next to announce a partnership with IBM. As the number of students explodes the challenge is making sure these students get a great teacher – how can higher ed be scaled. The partnership is about using Watson to help teachers and help students be more prepared.

Sebastian Thrun of Udacity wrapped up the session. He began by talking about teaching AI at Stanford when it was still a niche topic and the shift, 5 years ago, when the class went online and 100,000 students took it. He uses self-driving cars to illustrate a critical point about cognitive technology – that everyone benefits when it learns from a mistake. People find it nearly impossible to learn from the mistakes of others, but self-driving cars and other cognitive systems can. Anything repetitive can be improved therefore more rapidly by cognitive systems. And this ability is going to help cognitive systems accelerate past people in many tasks at an ever increasing rate. Udacity is partnering with IBM to deliver a nanodegree program on artificial intelligence.