IBM researchers spent four years developing Watson, the computer smart enough to beat the champions of the quiz show Jeopardy. Now they're trying to figure out how to get those capabilities into the phone in your pocket.
Bernie Meyerson, IBM's vice president of innovation, envisions a voice-activated Watson that answers questions, like a supercharged version of Apple's Siri personal assistant. A farmer could stand in a field and ask his phone, "When should I plant my corn?" He would get a reply in seconds, based on location data, historical trends and scientific studies.
Finding additional uses for Watson is part of IBM's plan to tap new markets and boost revenue from business analytics to $16 billion by 2015. After mastering history and pop culture for its Jeopardy appearance, the system is crunching financial information for Citigroup and cancer data for WellPoint. The next version, dubbed Watson 2.0, would be energy-efficient enough to work on smartphones and tablets.
"The power it takes to make Watson work is dropping down like a stone," Meyerson said. "One day, you will have ready access to an incredible engine with a world knowledge base."
IBM expects to generate billions in sales by putting Watson to work in finance, health care, telecommunications and other areas. The computer, which 15 million people saw beat former Jeopardy champions Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter last year, is the company's most high-profile product since it sold its personal computer unit to Lenovo Group seven years ago.
The challenge for IBM is overcoming the technical obstacles to making Watson a handheld product and figuring out how to price and deliver it. Watson's nerve center is 10 racks of IBM Power750 servers running in Yorktown Heights, N.Y., that have the same processing power as 6,000 desktop computers. Even though most of the computations occur at the data center, a Watson smartphone application would still consume too much power for it to be practical today.
Another hurdle: It takes a while for Watson to do the "machine learning" necessary to become a reliable assistant in an area. Watson's deal with WellPoint was announced in September of last year, and the system won't master the field of oncology until at least late 2013. Researchers also need to add voice and image recognition so that it can respond to real-world input, said Katharine Frase, vice president of industry research at IBM.
"In 2.0, we hope to give him more senses," Frase said. "A guy could say into his phone, 'Here's where I am and here's what I see,' lifting it up to take in images of the environment."
IBM's path to the mobile-assistant market contrasts with Apple's. For one, IBM is focused on corporate customers, while Apple is targeting anyone who buys its phones.
Apple made Siri the focus of its marketing of the iPhone 4S, which debuted last year. Siri has become a defining characteristic of the iPhone, though it's also drawn complaints. In a June survey by Minneapolis-based Piper Jaffray & Co., Siri was found to resolve requests correctly less than 70 percent of the time.
With Watson, IBM aims to tackle more complex questions. The program will be able to understand oncology well enough to advise doctors on diagnosis and prescriptions. As the technology is improved, a mobile Watson could become an extension of services that IBM already offers to business customers such as WellPoint, the second-biggest U.S. health insurer. The move fits into a broader push to promote analytics software, which helps customers diagnose problems and spot patterns in everything from infant mortality to South American floods.
Adding voice recognition to Watson might be easier than adding knowledge because IBM already makes tools that understand images and natural language, said Martin Kohn, IBM's chief medical scientist.