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Paging Dr Watson: Cognitive computing with a twist

21 Oct 2014

Westcon Imagine 2014 - It’s the stuff of business utopia: Being able to provide superior customer service, obtain expert advice or accelerate professional research via simple natural language queries.

Until now, it’s just been a dream. We caught up with IBM’s Jason Leonard to discuss how his group of Watson solutions is changing the way industries use information to make this a reality.

So what is Watson and how is it being used?

IBM has been working hard on its Watson artificial intelligence – or cognitive computing – technology for a number of years, it’s essentially a system capable of answering questions posed in natural language, and learning as it gains more experience.

“We’ve been talking about Watson for some time. It’s an extraordinarily powerful platform that is transforming industries and professions by providing expert advice and through its ability to learn to get better and better over time.

The real focus here is that natural language interaction. Instead of forcing people into lengthy search, we’re using a Watson-style interaction to mask the complexity and make it easy to use. For example, a customer can ask about the best products for their specific circumstances. An investment analyst can ask: What are the factors that will drive the price of iron ore in 2015? A life sciences researcher can ask Watson which proteins to target for further research.

Watson solutions are currently being used across a range of industries for a variety of outcomes, for example it’s being used at Australia’s Deakin University, ANZ Bank, Bumrungrad International Hospital and recently the Singapore Government also announced it plans to enhance citizen interaction and community engagementwith Watson.

What have been the common problems within the analytics market? Why do only a small fraction of business professionals use analytics tools as part of their decision making process? Too complex? Difficult to access?

Today’s separate analytics tools are designed for different kinds of analysis and data tasks and struggle to deliver a unified experience that brings together a complete set of self-service enterprise data and analytics capabilities.

With traditional analytics tools business professionals identify their problem, and have to work with consultants to select and then implement the various different tools that will help them get the answers to their questions. Often the expense of implementation and skills needed to drive the myriad of analytics applications are just too complicated for the average business professional to incorporate in their day to day activities.

IBM Watson ushers in a new era of analytics, but how can the offering bring big data to the masses?

We’ve been talking about Watson for some time. It’s an extraordinarily powerful platform that is transforming industries and professions through providing insight into problems that we’re previously too hard or complicated to tackle with traditional analytics applications. But up until now even some of those instances were very narrow and deep with a very specific purpose for specific set of questions.

However, on September 16, we released a version of Watson aimed at the general business user. The real focus here is that natural language interaction. Instead of trying to hard wire the user to the tool or database, we are using a Watson style interaction to mask the complexity and make it easy to use.

It’s all about the front end ability to interact with an extraordinarily complex set of tools and data.

Our intention is to make the base level accessible to everyone at no charge, forever. With that you can upload limited data and perform basic analysis and get a sense of the tool.

When you move into paid levels, you can work with larger, more complex data sets from a wider array of sources, collaborate with others, etc.

What stands IBM out from the crowd in this growingly competitive data market? Key features?

Watson Analytics is a game changer for big data and analytics. The cloud-based service, available in a ‘freemium’ model delivers a unified analytics experience automating the steps of data access and refinement, predictive analysis and visual storytelling - all the while using natural language dialogue.

Rather than having to decide which analytics tool to use based on the type of big data you’re working with, Watson Analytics immediately provides you with a visual story that illustrates what you need to know. No special skills are required either, as users can quickly and easily dive right in and begin exploring big data. Watson Analytics can be likened to a ‘data scientist in a box’.

How can Watson Analytics help all business people, from sales reps on the road to company CEOs?

Watson Analytics is fine tuned for the everyday business user including

  • Those in marketing, sales, operations, finance and human resources, who are motivated and under pressure to better understand data to quickly find answers on their own.
- A marketing professional can ask: What are the key drivers of my product sales?

- An HR professional can ask: Which benefits drive employee retention the most?

- A sales rep can ask: Which deals are most likely to close?

  • Business analysts, whose jobs are centred around processing information for the organisation, and who want to go beyond measuring and start understanding data. But, they might not have access to advanced analysts such as data scientists, statisticians, data miners, or BI architects.
  • Data scientists, who can typically spend 40-80% of their time on data preparation, can use Watson Analytics as an accelerator.
  • IT, who can deliver improvements in productivity to business users without having to support multiple solutions, ungoverned data sources, or rogue data analysis projects.
Could IBM’s Watson do for Analytics what Search did for Google? Do you think this move will help IBM own the analytics market?

We certainly hope so. We’re on the cusp of creating an entirely new category for analytics with this new service.

There are other companies like Tabluea who have tackled parts of this problem, such as visualisation. But IBM is the first company to pull this altogether into one integrated suite that offers powerful breakthroughs of predictive analytics that a wide array of people --with or without analytical skills-- can use.

We’re also the first and by far the most advanced in allowing natural language interaction with data, thanks to the work we’ve done for ourWatson customers.

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