Stephen Baker

The Numerati
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Why IBM's Watson is slow out of the blocks

January 9, 2014News

Picture a high school graduate of staggering genius. Her skills are spell-binding, but at this point, she doesn't have any experience in the work place or, for that matter, know anything. What's more, her social skills are abysmal. Now when this prodigy knocks on the door of Citigroup or the Mayo Clinic or General Electric, what can she offer?

Selling such a job candidate is more or less the challenge the IBM team has when they try market Watson to corporate customers. It's a fabulous machine. With its blend of big data retrieval, natural language, question-answering and analytics, It represents cognitive computing, the future of knowledge work. But what job can it do today?

We don't know. In these early days, Watson, just like other newcomers to the job market, will take boring jobs for which it's overqualified. A call center assistant, for example. People see that and wonder what all the fuss is about. Spencer Ante of the Wall Street Journal reports (behind firewall) that Watson's numbers are disappointing, and below projections. IBM is now building an entire Watson division.

But Watson, like that high school prodigy, is still in the development phase. This has to be frustrating to investors who are looking for winners in the next stage of the information economy. But it's just the way things move. It's similar, in a sense, to the early period of the personal computers, when no one knew exactly what they'd do. People said that homemakers would use computers in the kitchen, to keep records of food and manage recipes. Finally, speadsheets and word processing programs gave people a reason to buy the machines. (And then many promptly wondered why anyone would do anything else on a computer, including hitching it to a network.)

The fact is that cognitive computing technology, like Watson, will not only do jobs. It will transform work. In information industries, having question-answering machines on hand, in pockets, always on call, will alter our thinking about knowledge and what we have to know. But we don't yet know exactly how these machines will get from here to there, nor which companies will build them. Changing metaphors, if this is spring training and I'm trying to pick the two teams in the World Series, I'd bet on IBM and Google, one coming from the corporate side, the other from consumers. 

I was quoted in Spencer's story, which got me an invite to Fox Business News yesterday to discuss Watson's challenges. I went in there, got made up and waited and waited while they aired Gov. Chris Christie's never-ending press conference about the Bridgegate scandal. In the end I was bumped. It reminded me of going to Chicago for a day of Numerati events on the day that Gov. Rod Blagoyevich was arrested for trying to sell Barack Obama's Senate seat. And then when I was pitching Final Jeopardy and had a nationwide slot on Ira Flatow's Science Friday, most markets pre-empted me to cover the fall of Hosni Mubarak. You might assume that I'm unlucky. I'd just say that news happens on a frequent basis. Going back to Fox Biz today...


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