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IBM opens Watson competency centre in Victoria

Technology giant IBM will unveil its Victorian competency centre today, which hopes to give Australian innovators and researchers the chance to use machine intelligence.

The Australian IBM Watson Centre of Competency will be officially launched today in Victoria, by the Victorian Premier, Daniel Andrews, and the Minister for Health, Jill Hennessy.

Vice President and Lab Director, IBM Research Australia, and CTO IBM Australia and New Zealand, Joanna Batstone, said the new centre will allow local organisations to collaborate with IBM experts, and to understand how Watson's ability to think and learn can be applied to real world solutions.

"Of course, as a researcher myself, I have the view that research is vital, but it's just as important to develop research and to turn ideas from the labs into solutions that can be taken to market very effectively," she said.

"Invention delivered in a partnership drives innovation."

Batstone said the world has a profound new capability within cognitive systems like the one named after the founder of IBM.

"We can literally build into every digital application, product, or system a form of cognition. A kind of thinking ability," she said. "This will fundamentally change companies, professionals, and industries; systems that learn will enable businesses that learn."

It is not the first implementation Watson has had in Australia; it is currently behind the online student engagement advisor at Deakin University in Victoria. Batstone said this student advisor application delivers instant online access via the web and mobile devices for the university's 50,000 students.

"Watson has consumed thousands of pages of Deakin's unstructured data," she said. "Working together, Watson will deliver the simplest of answers, to tailored, personalised responses for students."

Watson is also being used in the Australian mining industry as an advisory service at Woodside. The Australian oil and gas company's engineers have been training Watson to use predictive data science to leverage more than 30 years of collective data.

Delivered via the cloud, the cognitive advisory service -- dubbed Lesson Learned -- scales the knowledge of engineers, which IBM said makes insights and information quickly accessible to a wide group.

According to Batstone, Lesson Learned will enable Woodside's engineering teams to ask complex questions in natural language.

Australia's Department of Immigration and Border Protection also announced that it would be using Watson to tap into further sources of relevant information, expecting to be able to make further observations from unstructured data sources such as news feeds and government reports.

IP Australia toyed with the technology for 12 weeks, concluding in June, to explore opportunities to enhance its online service offerings; and last October, ANZ Bank unveiled its Watson Engagement Advisor Tool, which was brought on board to help the bank observe customer insights to help its financial advice team deliver an improved advice process.

Batstone said Watson has come a long way since it appeared on the Jeopardy game show in 2011.

"Natural language Q&A is only one of the 28 Watson services available today," she said.

Watson's cognitive computing platform is also being utilised to tackle skin cancer.

The Australian Government's Cancer Australia predicts 12,960 new cases of melanoma will be diagnosed in 2015, projecting the number of deaths from melanoma alone to reach 1,675 by the end of the year.

"Working with the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC) in New York, we're developing a diagnostic system to enable the early detection of melanoma," Batstone said. "Currently melanoma diagnostic accuracy varies widely across clinicians, institutions, and the availability of expertise; diagnostic accuracy is at around 75-84 percent."

Batstone said that as skin cancers account for nearly 80 percent of all newly diagnosed cancers in Australia, this is good news as it will lead to increased diagnostic accuracy.

"Our researchers have been teaching Watson to see. To see tens of thousands of photographs of melanoma images, in effect, Watson now has eyes," she said, adding, "eyes to see many, many more images than a human radiologist or dermatologist could ever process."

Watson is currently in residency at the MSKCC, where a team of physicians and analysts have been training Watson to develop a tool that can help medical professionals choose the best treatment plans for individual cancer patients.