Finding new uses for IBM's famed Watson computer
Mar 03, 2013 (Austin American-Statesman - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
In 2011, IBM Corp. scientists took their research computer, Watson, to the TV game show "Jeopardy" -- and won.
It wasn't just a stunt. Watson was the result of five years of development by IBM and academic researchers, who set out to make a computer that could understand the nuances of natural language, quickly sift through huge amounts of information and then determine logical answers to complex questions.
After the game show win, IBM set about finding commercial applications for the new technology. And the executive chosen to head that effort was Austinite Manoj Saxena.
Saxena, 48, says his new job is like running a startup company -- but with all the resources of a huge technology company. The Indian-born Saxena knows something about startups. He left 3M Co. in the 1990s to form two successful Austin startups -- Exterprise, started in 1998, and Webify, started in 2002. When IBM bought Webify in 2006, he became an executive within IBM.
Saxena logged almost 150,000 air travel miles last year to meet with potential customers, partners and researchers.
"I never thought I would be going this fast within a large company," he said. "This is the most meaningful professional thing I have done in my life."
He recently talked with the American-Statesman about his job and about what the future holds for Watson.
Statesman: The highlight of Project Watson's career so far seems to be winning Jeopardy. What has IBM done since "Jeopardy" to find useful work for Watson to do
Saxena: We looked at a variety of information-intensive markets such as insurance, health care, telecom and banking when deciding where next to apply Watson technology. It became clear that the most pressing need, and where we thought we could make the biggest impact, was in the health-care field -- specifically, applying Watson-based technology to improving cancer care. On "Jeopardy," we were able to demonstrate how quickly Watson processes, weighs and evaluates information and it sparked our imagination to think of what sort of effect access to that breadth of knowledge, coupled with speed and accuracy, could have on medical practitioners, researchers and patients worldwide.
Within roughly a year of Watson's "Jeopardy" debut, IBM partnered with Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center and one of the largest insurers in America, WellPoint, to develop solutions based on Watson technology that would help improve cancer treatments and also increase efficiency and accuracy in medical pre-authorizations. We have since deployed a Watson Healthcare solution in production and early results reinforce the promise that Watson holds of a better quality of life for patients as they receive better, more personalized care that is based on the best available medical knowledge.
How did you get the job as general manager of Project Watson How many people are on the Watson team
I came to IBM five years ago when they acquired Webify, an Austin-based company I'd founded and ran as its CEO. ... Since joining IBM, I've been entrusted with a series of disruptive and market making opportunities within IBM's Software Group and Global Business Services division. After Watson's performance on "Jeopardy," IBM's then-CEO Sam Palmisano identified a few people to work on commercializing Watson. Given my experience building companies, my time spent in software and services and my background in information-intensive industries, I made the short list.
Right now we have an incredibly dedicated team of a few hundred people across the globe, from both research and hardware, working on Watson.
What is your job like
My job is to define, build and scale a business around the Watson technology, or as I like to say: converting "smarter" to "richer" in a way that enriches people's lives and improves societies. Humans have always looked to technology to make things faster, better, more accurate. From the first tabulating machine, to programmable computers, to a Watson-based cognitive system -- the goal has been to use technological advances to improve and enhance our lives. With Watson we really are seeing the beginning of a whole new era of computing -- cognitive computing -- where machines are able to interact with and learn from humans. Systems like Watson are capable of refining their responses, learning from mistakes and improving over time.
My job entails three things: working with clients to define and co-create compelling products, identify, recruit and empower a talented team, and ensure investment in and returns from key focus areas.
Our CEO Ginni Rometty has placed a big focus on IBM becoming the most essential company for our clients. As the volume of data generated by social media, smartphones, sensors and business interactions continues to grow I believe using cognitive computing solutions like Watson will help businesses drive better insights and decisions and in turn make help realize our goal of becoming an essential company.
What is fun about your job
There are two big things -- the opportunity to affect the lives of millions of people through Watson in major areas such as health care, and also being able to work with the best and brightest technical and business minds every day within IBM and our partners.
I love the challenge of coming up with creative and disruptive strategies to achieve the full potential of what new technologies like Watson can be, the satisfaction of realizing new applications for the technology, and finding new areas and industries in which to put Watson to work. I recognize how rare it is to have the opportunity that I have -- to be part of something as groundbreaking as Watson. It fits well with my personal motto of "do good, have fun, and make a lot of money" (in that order). But for me the best part is that I feel we're doing meaningful work here that will positively impact millions of people's lives.
IBM appears to be handling Watson far differently than it would for a typical new computing product or service. Why is that Can Watson actually become a money maker for IBM
Watson is a bit unique in that sense. As I mentioned earlier, it's the beginning of a new class of computing with implications across software, services and hardware. It's one of the most complex systems ever built by IBM, taking technology from software, hardware, services and research. In terms of development we're taking a bigger and longer view with Watson as part of our analytics, cloud and big data focus. It is already making a significant amount of money for IBM and will continue to do so. We are projecting to generate $16 billion in analytics revenue by 2015, and Watson will be a part of it. We expect this to be one of the fastest-growing segments of the business for IBM over the next three to five years.
Where does Watson go from here Does it become a formal product or service of IBM
Watson is being commercialized as a series of products which will be delivered over the cloud or on the customer's premise. Recently we announced the first two commercial Watson products for the health care industry focused on cancer treatment and pre-authorizations.
Watson products will be delivered as a service via private, public and hybrid cloud models. On a more tactical level Watson is targeted at line-of-business owners -- marketing, operations, finance, etc. -- and senior leadership. Representing a fundamental shift in the ways most companies have traditionally operated, this target group is best positioned to bring evidence-based, optimized decisions to the point of impact.
What makes Watson unique is its ability to arrive at a reasoned decision -- not just giving an answer that matches the information it has processed, but being able to give the best answer based on context, historical knowledge and past interactions. And then rate that answer with a degree of confidence and accuracy and support it with evidence.
Look for more Watson product announcements later in the year.
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