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Language-learning Watson looks to change the face of computing

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Staff Writer

It’s hard to predict what the next big thing will be in technology.

But IBM is looking at how much “smarter” computers can get with Watson, its new “cognitive computing” technology.

IBM stresses that computers must become smarter for the good of the world to handle the exponential rise in data as people increasingly blog, tweet and upload every detail of their lives to the Internet via social media and digitized books.

“With the drastic increase of data comes the question of whether our computers can process all of it” and turn it into knowledge, said Masayoshi Nakano, marketing manager at IBM Japan’s Watson department.

“There needs to be a new type of computer or system. It will be a kind of revolution in the computing system,” he said.

IBM believes Watson will be that new system.

Watson boasts the ability to handle and “recognize” such data to provide knowledge to humans so they can make better choices, IBM said.

While applications using Watson are already in commercial use in the United States, IBM is now programming Watson to “learn” Japanese by partnering with SoftBank Corp.

The two firms said the Japanese market will begin to see products with the new technology debut around March, before spreading through collaborations with ventures and big companies.

The Watson project was begun in 2005 as a challenge to the players on “Jeopardy,” the U.S. game show. Six years later, it succeeded in defeating the human champions.

Watson is often described as artificial intelligence, but IBM calls it a cognitive computing system because it can discriminate between the various types of so-called big data now flooding cyberspace thanks to the proliferation of smartphones and social media.

Nakano said today’s computers are capable of processing data stored in an organized manner, such as numbers in a spreadsheet or database, but are not good at handling information outside those parameters.

Watson, however, will make it possible to turn such data into useful information in many fields, including medicine, finance, retail and call center operations.

For instance, there are so many medical papers published about cancer each year that doctors can’t possibly keep up with them, he said. Doctors can thus have Watson read the papers for them, including the photos, charts and CT scans.

“By using Watson to recognize (CT scan) data . . . if a shadow is seen on a certain spot, it would be able to pull up information on past pictures with similar patterns to help identify the disease,” Nakano said.

“By analyzing a massive amount of past data, Watson can then point out the risks and suggest a certain kind of examination” so doctors can diagnose and treat patients better, he said.

This is just one example of how the versatile Watson system could be used.

In the U.S., some hospitals are actually testing the system and other companies are combining it with products or services.

Fluid Inc. is developing an e-commerce system that makes Watson work as a shop associate to provide an in-shop experience by allowing customers to ask it to find a product based on certain conditions.

Venture firm Elemental Path has meanwhile come up with a dinosaur toy that can verbally communicate with children by using Watson’s knowledge.

Watson is starting to make inroads into Japan as well.

Major banks including Sumitomo Mitsui Banking Corp. and Mizuho Bank Ltd. announced last November that they would be using Watson in call centers to help field questions from customers.

Traditionally, operators speak with the customers and manually search for the answers. But Watson will do this automatically.

A spokesman for Mizuho, which has been using the system since February, said Watson has helped reduce the time needed to handle each call by about a minute so far.

Watson is expected to spread further in Japan as IBM and SoftBank localize its applications for the Japanese market.

“As a mobile phone carrier, SoftBank has many kinds of content. It has Yahoo Japan in its group, too,” Nakano said. “Watson will be pointless without content to absorb.”

Since SoftBank’s clients include both businesses and consumers, it will be better if there are many firms that want to use Watson to come up with something creative, he said.

SoftBank hopes to promote Watson to its customers, said Ryo Kawamoto, deputy director at the Watson business development office.

“The Japanese carriers are now selling very similar handset lineups, so what was happening in the enterprise market was just price competition,” he said. “We want to have something different and change the field of competition.”

Masato Tatsuta, director of SoftBank’s Watson division, said one of the company’s duties is to test whether Watson is correctly understanding Japanese, a task that has been making steady progress.

While it will be pitching Watson to its business partners, SoftBank said other possible uses might include coupling Watson with its Pepper robot or its smartphones.

Last week, the carrier announced it will start a Watson-enhanced health care service in March for its smartphone users. This will allow people to input details on their lifestyles and provide DNA samples and health records. Watson will then offer tips on how to live a healthier life.

This section, appearing on the second Monday of each month, features new technologies that are still under research and development but expected to hit the market in the coming years.

  • Phillip Jensen

    This is great coverage of Watson overall. Two clarifications:

    Elemental Path is not a venture firm, they are a friends and family funded start-up living inside a mobile development company in New York.

    The dinosaur toy is not using Watson’s knowledge. Watson’s cognitive capabilities require massive amounts of unstructured data to be of any use. Elemental Path does not have huge sources of education data. It is brand new and the company has no customers yet; it hasn’t released a product. The “brain” of the toy is a simple key/database conditional logic program running on their private servers. They refer to as their secret sauce. This is not a Watson system. There isn’t anything going on here that could not be done with off the shelf database software and rudimentary programming. If Elemental Path is using any tech from IBM, it would be their speech to text service, which is not a cognitive Watson feature. There is nothing cognitive about this “smart toy” and claims otherwise are misleading.