IBM's Watson supercomputer.

IBM’s Watson supercomputing platform will now crunch consumer data. Big Blue has whipped the curtain back from the IBM Watson Engagement Advisor, which it claims will help companies engage “in key functions such as customer service, marketing and sales.” In other words, Watson will mine through enormous datasets for insights into how consumers behave—not exactly a revolutionary use for Big Data technology, but one likely to gain more prominence in coming years as companies look to analytics as a way to increase their bottom lines. IBM is also positioning Watson Engagement Advisor as a customer portal: the “Ask Watson” feature will allow consumers to pose questions about a product or troubleshoot issues. A significant portion of Watson’s development has focused on making sure the system can comprehend natural language; coupled with access to massive amounts of data and the ability to learn from past interactions, that potentially makes Watson a powerful tool for people who need answers quickly. “Ask Watson” can potentially interact with customers via a chat window or even a mobile app, and draw from stored data to deliver answers tailored to individual needs. In that way, Watson could lessen the daily workload of human-staffed call centers (and their e-commerce equivalents). IBM claims that Watson has become faster and smaller in the years since its original debut on television’s “Jeopardy!” game show (when the system learned a bit too much slang for its own good). That means the platform can run on hardware as small as IBM’s Power 750 server, which would definitely fit in most data centers. Until the unveiling of the Watson Engagement Advisor, IBM seemed content to largely promote Watson as a game-show champion and healthcare tool. In February, the company joined with WellPoint and Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City to train Watson in processing and interpreting oncology data. As a part of that effort, clinicians and other human trainers spent nearly 15,000 hours “teaching” Watson how to interpret clinical information; they also fed the supercomputer more than 600,000 pieces of medical evidence, along with two million pages of text from 42 medical journals and clinical trials. At the time, the Maine Center for Cancer Medicine and WESTMED Medical Group were apparently next in line to test the more oncology-minded Watson. It takes several days—at least—to train Watson for new tasks, whether customer engagement or medical research. Watson’s “mind” must engage a combination of geospatial, statistical, and temporal reasoning; Dr. David Ferrucci, IBM Fellow and Principal Investigator for Watson, once gave a speech at the Future Health Technology Summit that breaks down in a little more detail how Watson reasons and learns from its data. Now, all that learning is going to be applied to the cause of commerce.   Image: IBM