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What Can Watson Do for Your Company?

02/12/2015 11:39 am ET | Updated Apr 14, 2015

thumbnail-1Companies are using IBM Watson to grow and transform their businesses in huge ways that are making a lot of professionals nervous. Instead of writing it off as "another new supercomputer," let's take a look at what actually makes Watson unique. Watson is a cognitive technology that processes information much more like a smart human than a smart computer. Rather than thinking humans will be replaced by a computer, you should realize that this is, in fact, a huge opportunity.

In 2011, you may recall, Watson summarily bested its human competitors on Jeopardy. It was able to accomplish that because it doesn't just use conventional computing; it also combines three additional capabilities: natural language processing, hypothesis generation and evaluation, and dynamic learning. No other technology on the market today possesses these combined capabilities. It's this synergy that has the potential to make Watson your business's new best friend.

Unlike typical computers, Watson can unlock the vast world of unstructured data that makes up as much as 80 percent of existing information today. Watson knows that all data is not created equal. It's able to distinguish between different kinds of information. It culls relevant data from disparate sources, and it creates hypotheses and continually tests them in order to narrow in on the most reliable and accurate results. Because Watson can read, analyze, and learn from natural language, just as humans can, it can make the sorts of informed, context-specific decisions we would expect from a person, as opposed to a search engine.

Such as... what to cook for dinner? Yes, in fact, when Bon Appétit invited Watson to plumb the magazine's database of some 9,000 recipes, Watson effectively taught itself how to cook. Once it understood the principles of taste and cuisine style, as well as the intricate mechanics of flavor combinations--it was able to generate new, creative dishes. And since Watson is capable of dynamic learning, it literally gets smarter by tracking feedback from its users and learning from both failures and successes.

IBM is betting big on Watson's ability to transform the world of business. It recently opened a $1 billion dollar Watson Headquarters in New York to provide support for entrepreneurs and developers interested in the technology. We're beginning to see the tech applied to the fields of education, retail, and medicine. If the success of this rollout indicates anything, it's that Watson is going to be here for a very long time, and if you think your field is somehow immune to disruption from Watson, it's time to wake up.

It's Elementary

Imagine if your employees and customers had the ability to receive help from the most knowledgeable expert in your field at a moment's notice. You may begin to understand the implications of Watson as a potent disruptive technology and why it's currently poised to revolutionize a huge array of industries.

A majority of online shoppers don't end up buying because, without a great sales associate, they lack confidence in their selection. To solve this problem, retail clothing and supply company, The North Face, is now using an app developed by Fluid Inc., which draws on Watson technology to provide customers with an infinitely patient and expert personal salesperson who can intuitively and conversationally answer questions like "What do I need for a two-week hiking trip in the mountains?"

This retail expertise extends into the realms of travel, banking, real estate, and finance. Watson-based technologies are able to replace many of the current services of human travel agents, bank officers, real estate agents, and financial advisers by drawing upon comprehensive knowledge of existing information to provide detailed answers to questions traditionally posed only to fellow humans, such as: "Given our interests, what's a low-key and romantic beach I could travel to with my wife this summer?" "Given my age and goals, how should I diversify my retirement portfolio?" and "Given our family dynamics and income, which neighborhood in my city offers both great schools and affordable homes?"

Even more disruptive is the way Watson is already altering the medical industry. Imagine your ideal human doctor: you know, the one with the top-notch education and impeccable track record who makes it his mission to keep up with the very latest research. As Watson takes over the role of an expert diagnosing diseases and prescribing the most cost-effective treatment, the human doctor's role will change to focus on what humans do best.

Last July, MIT Technology Review reported that Watson is poised to overtake human doctors in oncology expertise. With some tweaking to its current knowledge base, Watson will soon be able to stay informed of all the cutting-edge research data and provide up-to-the-minute treatment recommendations, exceeding what even the most focused human doctor is able to provide.

At this point, it's important to understand that there is a science and an art to every profession. Soon, Watson will know the science better than a human. Humans will need to focus on the art of their profession -- the creative elements only they can provide.

Now you may begin to understand why so many professionals are beginning to worry that they'll soon be replaced by Watson. As a forward-thinking strategist, though, it's obvious that Watson provides you with an unparalleled opportunity to leverage information, to both grow your profits and provide amazing services.

The question isn't "What can Watson do?" It's: "How will you put Watson to work for you?"