Ever since Watson beat human champions in Jeopardy! in 2011, IBM has placed a big bet on its supercomputer, establishing a separate business unit, pledging $1 billion in investment and assembling a workforce of 2,000.
Since then, Watson has been venturing beyond IBM to work with other businesses and become a brand in his its own right.
After opening Watson’s computing capabilities to researchers in August, IBM today officially opened its global headquarters with 600 IBMers at 51 Astor Place in New York’s Silicon Alley to serve local startups, in addition to opening wth five “Watson Client Experience Centers” around the world.[more]
“Watson is bringing forward a new era of computing, enabling organizations around the globe to launch new businesses, redefine markets and transform industries,” said Mike Rhodin, SVP, IBM Watson Group.
“Watson is fueling a new market and ecosystem of clients, partners, developers, venture capitalists, universities and students. The next great innovations will come from people who are able to make connections that others don’t see and Watson is making possible.”
What Watson needs in order to pay its way at IBM is more commercial, real-world applications, and now the first wave is firmly on board. In fact, 100 companies and non-profits are now developing softwared applications using watson.
The Watson team has been workin with blue-chip clients such as WellPoint in the US, CaixaBank in Spain, ANZ and Deakin University in Australia, Bumrungrad International Hospital in Thailand and Metropolitan Health in South Africa.
As part of CEO Ginni Rometty’s bid to transform the company (but not be defined by a product, as she outlined at Fortune‘s Most Powerful Women summit this week), Watson falls in the sweet spot of Rometty’s vision for relentless reinvention.
So about a year ago, IBM made its Watson technology available as a development platform in the cloud, for a worldwide community of software application providers to build a new generation of cognitive apps infused with Watson’s cognitive computing intelligence.
As IBM put it, “The move aims to spur innovation and fuel a new ecosystem of entrepreneurial software application providers—ranging from start-ups and emerging, venture capital backed businesses to established players. Together with IBM, these partners share a vision for creating a new class of cognitive applications that transform how businesses and consumers make decisions.”
As a result, it has started working with startups including WayBlazer from Kayak and Travelocity veteran Terry Jones, to troll the Web, social media networks and personal preferences to suggest travel experiences.
“To date, online trip planning has been a complex and time-consuming chore lacking a way to connect, organize and personalize data,” stated Jones. “WayBlazer, makes sense of the information overload and presents it to consumers as a personal travel concierge. Travel suppliers from destinations and hotels to airlines and rental car sites can use WayBlazer to provide a one-stop solution with personalized recommendations, accelerating the pace and frequency of online bookings.”
Other start-ups using Watson include:
• LifeLearn, which helps vets to give quick pet diagnosis and treatment
• Findability Sciences, which gives non-profit funders help in making smarter investments
• SparkCognition, which offers network security insights by “thinking” like a security expert
• Red Ant, a retail sales training app maker
• GenieMD, which makes health recommendations to patients.
“This is the first wave of partners,” commented Stephen Gold, VP IBM’s Watson solutions. “It’s a milestone toward seeing Watson take hold commercially in a meaningful way.”
Watson is also joining IBM’s public cloud service, Bluemix, which recently added cognitive services including modeling based on linguistic analytics, the ability to understand abstract concepts and colloquialisms, and the ability to answer questions based on multiple data sources.
Watson is also learning to “think” in languages other than English, learning Spanish for its work with CaixaBank, for example.
The biggest challenge for IBM is to develop the cognitive computing capabilities into a platform other companies can utilize like Apple’s Mac and iOS, Google’s Android and Microsoft’s Windows.
“Watson could give something like Apple’s Siri an actual brain,” VentureBeat commented. “And what’s truly exciting is that we’re basically at the starting point for cognitive computing. Looking at Watson today I can’t help but feel flashbacks to using the Web for the first time in the mid-90s, where its potential for innovation seemed limitless.”
Below, IBM’s kick-off event at the opening of 51 Astor Place: