IBM buys virtual assistant maker Cognea to give Watson personality from 'suit and tie to kid next door'

Will Cognea help IBM commercialise Watson with greater success than it's found so far?
Written by Liam Tung, Contributing Writer on

IBM's Watson group has acquired Cognea, an Australian-founded startup that makes virtual assistants for enterprise customers such as bank call centres.

IBM announced the acquisition on Monday in a blogpost outlining how the Watson Platform will fit into the "cognitive era of computing" where people have conversations with machines that are able to understand natural language.

The acquisition comes as IBM figures out how to commercialise Watson through its new Watson Group, which was formed earlier this year with a $1 billion investment from IBM and a move to New York's Silicon Alley.

Michael Rhodin, senior vice president of IBM Watson Group, said IBM has brought in Cognea to offer a range of personalities for Watson, "from suit-and-tie formal to kid-next-door friendly".

"We believe this focus on creating depth of personality, when combined with an understanding of the users' personalities will create a new level of interaction that is far beyond today's 'talking' smartphones. We welcome to IBM co-founders Liesl Capper and John Zakos, and the rest of the Cognea team," Rhodin said.

Capper previously launched a search engine company, Mooter, while Zakos had spent a short time within IBM Research. The pair founded Cognea in 2005.

Cognea's two main products were its MyCyberTwin high-IQ virtual agents and Cognea Virtual Assistants which "handle complex tasks, [are] always in a good mood, speak many languages and work day and night".

The company lists the largest auto insurance company in the US, government body NASA, and the National Australia Bank among its clients, and also claims businesses have created 40,000 chat bots using its technology.

The acquisition furthers IBM's plan to make Watson a development platform available to the enterprise, startups, and universities.

"Using these services, the designers of cognitive applications will be able to select from a variety of capabilities to make the experience of interacting with computers more natural and valuable," Rhodin said.

Companies from a number of sectors are trialling Watson systems, including Italy's oil giant ENI, Singapore's DBS bank, and two US healthcare organisations.

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