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IBM is challenging developers to insert Watson into mobile apps

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At the Mobile World Congress event today, IBM CEO Ginni Rometty laid down the gauntlet for mobile developers. Over the next three months, IBM will host its Watson Mobile Developer Challenge to find the best ideas for mobile apps that can take advantage of Watson’s cognitive computing capabilities. Three winners will join the IBM Ecosystem program and receive assistance from Big Blue to turn their ideas into commercial applications. But IBM stands to gain just as much from this as the winners do.

The contest is IBM’s latest step in its quest to make Watson a $10 billion business, and to use the cloud to get it there. As it stands today, most mobile or desktop applications don’t have the computing power to handle the types of natural language processing and artificial intelligence models that Watson uses. Hosting Watson as a cloud service that applications can access via API changes this.

Anyone watching IBM since it acquired cloud provider Softlayer last June has probably seen a shift in the company’s cloud strategy. It’s trying to take on Amazon(s amzn) Web Services directly, it’s investing more in data centers and it’s moving fast to get its Watson system running in the cloud so it can start exposing it as a service. It even bought a cloud database startup. At the company’s Pulse Conference earlier this week, the company said it’s deploying its Power-processor-based gear inside Softlayer data centers and expects to start delivering its Watson service commercially in the second quarter.

“Properly understood, properly done, [cloud] is going to be a game-changer and a big deal,” Rometty said during her keynote. “Everything [will be] exposed as a service,” she added.

A prototype of The North Face's Watson-powered shopping assistant. Source: IBM
A prototype of The North Face’s Watson API-powered shopping assistant. Source: IBM

However smart a business decision it is to deliver Watson as a service, though, and however committed IBM is to making it work, the company can’t afford to ignore the competition. At our Structure Data conference next month, for example, IBM Watson Group vice president Stephen Gold will take the stage along with AlchemyAPI Founder and CEO Eliot Turner to discuss the advent of artificial intelligence via API. But other companies, including Expect Labs — whose co-founder and CEO Tim Tuttle will speak in another session — has also rolled out an API for consuming AI from the cloud.

Oh, and there’s Google(s goog), too. In a recent interview with The Guardian, Google engineering director Ray Kurzweil explained just how important natural language processing is to that company’s prowess as the biggest web platform (and, it might hope, cloud service provider) around. He told the writer:

“IBM’s Watson is a pretty weak reader on each page, but it read the 200m pages of Wikipedia. And basically what I’m doing at Google is to try to go beyond what Watson could do. To do it at Google scale.”

So, yeah, IBM is smart to get on this movement early because Google, a whole lot of startups, and potentially other cloud providers such as Microsoft and Amazon Web Services also realize that the future is in advanced computing capabilities delivered as services. And although Watson got a lot of attention by winning Jeopardy! in 2011, it’s going to need a lot more — in the form of developers — to win at this game.

4 Responses to “IBM is challenging developers to insert Watson into mobile apps”

  1. Oneasasum


    Quoting from the article:

    “As an entrepreneur, I have learned to look around the corners,” says Saxena, now managing director at The Entrepreneur’s Fund. “This whole convergence of mobile, social, big data, cloud, and analytics, it’s the perfect storm coming together for a whole new class of applications.”

    Despite his new role, Saxena will still serve as an advisor to Michael Rhodin, the senior VP now in charge of IBM’s Watson Group. He’ll also co-fund many of IBM’s investments (the tech giant recently announced its own $100 million Watson-focused fund) and vice-versa. Saxena and IBM have already made their first bet on a Denver-based health care management company called Welltok. The idea is to connect employees with corporate wellness plans by tapping into Watson’s ability to read “millions of pages of data within seconds” and improve “its own performance by learning.”

    “The ideas [for Watson] won’t just come from within IBM,” Saxena says. “We want to let the best and the brightest innovate.”

    In addition to Welltok, Saxena’s fund has already made three other Watson-focused investments, though he declined to give names. At least initially, both Saxena and IBM’s funds will focus on companies that serve the health care, retail, travel, financial services, and legal industries.

  2. Oneasasum

    IBM appears to be far ahead of the competition at the moment, as far as what Watson apps might be able to do. It remains to be seen whether they will continue to be ahead in a couple years.

    Here is a really fascinating video that shows what the current and future generations of Watson will be capable of:

    At 11:35 into his talk he mentions that what IBM is building is a dialogue system, not simply a question-answering system. Next-gen (current?) Watson will have “dialogue-chaining”, according to Saxena.

    At 15:20 in his talk he goes through an example of just what this will entail, and it looks incredible — able to process natural language queries, read and reason over articles, and generate complex answers with natural text generation. I’m sure the level of reasoning is quite limited; but even if Watson can pool financial information from several different sources like in that demo, and then apply some rudimentary reasoning to that — that would be incredible! And IMMENSELY useful. Most time wasted on the web is spent trying to do that kind of query in Saxena’s demo.