IBM’s Watson Takes on New Roles in Health Care and Cooking

Carl Weinschenk
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Robotics: Humans Need Not Apply

The last time most people thought about IBM’s Watson, it was thrashing Ken Jennings, the human champion of Jeopardy! Since then, the company has made a big push to transform the impressive parlor trick into a big part of its business, and a lot has happened.

This week, InformationWeek reports that a high-ranking IBM executive, Lance Crosby, the CEO of the SoftLayer unit, is courting Silicon Valley startups in an effort to generate interest for Watson as a Service. The service is currently working out of IBM’s Dallas, London and Hong Kong cloud centers and will be in all 40 by year’s end.

Of course, anything that approaches artificial intelligence is complicated, and Watson is no different. TechRepublic’s Mary Shacklett describes what she characterizes as the hierarchy of how Watson operates. She looks at the topic in the context of health care diagnoses, but the procedure no doubt is the same in other areas. Shacklett identifies four levels:


  • Immediate help for practitioners in diagnosing and treating patients
  • Understanding patterns and conditions pertaining to that patient
  • Further diagnoses and treatment options based on information gleaned from the first two steps
  • Deep research and discovery based on the information available to it on the patient’s condition

Part of the push to monetize Watson is a good deal of old-fashioned marketing. Indeed, the Jeopardy! appearance was a milestone in that effort. Another step is the use of Watson as a chef. Time reports that IBM has entered into an agreement with the Institute of Culinary Education in New York. Watson is now the brains behind the recipes served up by a food truck that already appeared at one conference and is slated for another. 

The story doesn’t identify the earlier conference, but the company blog to which it links suggests that it was IBM Pulse, late last month. The coming event will be SXSW, which is slated for Austin, beginning tomorrow. The recipes are exotic, to say the least:

The supercomputer made its debut as a chef at a Las Vegas tech conference last week, and so far has produced gourmet, fusion fare like a Swiss-Thai asparagus quiche, an Austrian chocolate burrito, and a pork belly moussaka.

Another area of interest for Watson is mobility. Indeed, nothing about the initiative precludes its use on smartphones or tablets. At Mobile World Congress last month in Barcelona, IBM CEO Ginni Rometty announced the IBM Watson Mobile Developer Challenge. As the name implies, developers who write compelling mobile apps for Watson will be supported by the company.  

All may not be well on the human side of the initiative, however. ZDNet reports that Manoj Saxena, who, according to the site, “oversaw development of Watson’s artificial intelligence technology," has joined the Entrepreneurs’ Fund venture firm.

Larry Dignan doesn’t dismiss the importance of the move, but suggests that the sky isn’t falling:

I'd argue the worries may be a bit overblown. Yes, Watson needs to prove itself as a business. Yes, IBM needs developers on board and has to turn cognitive computing into something that enterprises will covet. But Watson doesn't have a technology development problem right now. Watson has a marketing, productization and sales issue.

Marketing for Watson offers no proof that it will be as successful as the technical development. Though, IBM clearly has made a big bet that it will. So far, the jury is out. But at least we know that the computer platform can help prepare an Austrian chocolate burrito.



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