IBM CEO Rometty: Watson, cognitive computing mainstreaming begins

IBM's Watson Business Group has launched and the plan is to take cognitive computing mainstream. How much patience will IBM get as Watson exits startup mode and goes commercial?
Written by Larry Dignan, Contributor

Positioning the launch of the IBM's Watson Business Group as the beginning of the mainstream cognitive computing era, CEO Ginny Rometty said Big Blue's technology will transform customers' industries, institutions and society.

rometty mug
IBM CEO Ginny Rometty

Rometty's scene setting was at least partly aimed at skeptics and the commercialization challenges with Watson so far. Rometty noted that Watson "is at the very beginning of its journey."

"We don't create new units very often but when we do it's because we see a big shift ahead," said Rometty. "This is a new era of machine/human collaboration."

Rometty said there have only been two computing eras. The first was tabulated---computing was initially designed to count. Then the programmable era arrived with the mainframe and everything that followed. "Everything that is out there today is programmed," said Rometty, referring to PCs, tablets and smartphones.

The third era is cognitive and systems that learn. She said 2011 and Watson's Jeopardy debut "brought a new species" of computing. "By design it gets smarter over time," said Rometty. "It can find a needle in the haystack and knows the haystack. It understands the implications of your questions."

Rometty said that the challenge is taking Watson to a new level with customers and clients. Instead of noting the challenges adapting Watson to healthcare, she said that oncologists at leading research hospitals have dedicated two years to working with Watson. "The greatest testament to Watson is that they are dedicated to it," she said.

Also: IBM forms Watson Business Group: Will commercialization follow? | Dealing with the data deluge, and putting the 'information' back into CIO | IBM Watson: How the Jeopardy-winning supercomputer was born, and what it wants to do next | DBS Bank is IBM's first Watson customer in Asia

Mainstreaming Watson

Michael Rhodin, the new leader of the Watson Business Group, said "mainstream is where we're headed." The Watson team, which will now be 2,000 strong, was in startup mode for the last two to three years.

Watson Business Group chief Michael Rhodin

"IBM will launch new products and new capabilities that will prove what we mean by cognitive computing," said Rhodin. "What you've seen so far from Watson is just the tip of the iceberg. Watson is just getting started. It's learning."

To mainstream Watson, IBM is trying to create an ecosystem of businesses built on Watson and its application programming interfaces. "We want partners," said Rometty.

IBM's Watson division will be focused on the following:

  • Transformational efforts: How can cognitive computing revamp industries? In healthcare, Watson can recommend treatments, integrate information and help teach medical students. Watson can serve as a partner to physicians.
  • Enterprise products: IBM plans to make Watson more scalable with fast deployments to deliver relevant answers to customers.
  • Ecosystem: Building businesses and recruiting developers to work with Watson's technology.
  • Foundational technology: Watson technology will be used for IBM's analytics portfolio.

At the kickoff, IBM launched two cloud services that revolve around Watson, but many more will come.

The challenges

IBM is pushing a new way of computing; in the enterprise and with services, there will be implementation potholes. In that context, it's not terribly surprising that IBM hasn't landed a ton of revenue from Watson.

In other words, the last two to three years have been a startup period and experimental phase for Watson. However, once Watson is implemented in healthcare institutions, it can scale quickly.

Institutions like Sloan Kettering are essentially development partners for IBM and Watson. The exchange of intellectual capital isn't easily monetized. However, once Watson is rolled out to healthcare systems broadly in a more turnkey way, IBM's revenue growth can follow.

As IBM expands Watson's use to other industries, the same implementation trial and effort phases will happen. Scaling Watson across multiple verticals won't be easy or quick.

That reality will also present another challenge for IBM: investor patience. There will be a natural impatience with the Watson unit's growth and revenue contribution. Why? IBM's hardware business will likely struggle to grow in the future due to cloud computing. On the software side, software as a service means a licensing shift for IBM. And for services, the cloud may just mean that you need fewer IBM consultants to implement technologies.

The Watson Business Group will be expected to offset those hurdles and deliver quarterly. If the Watson Business Group delivers $1 billion in 2018 or slips a year to 2019, it will still be successful. Wall Street won't be as charitable if IBM can't hit its numbers.

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