Could IBM’s Watson Decide the Next U.S. Election?

Rob Enderle
Slide Show

Capitalizing on Big Data: Analytics with a Purpose

In the presidential wins over the last two terms, analytics played a key role in the outcome. While some may believe that Google went farther than it should to assure that its candidate won, what was very clear was that the President fielded a competitively huge team of analytics specialists both times while his opponents largely couldn’t spell “analytics.” This, coupled with a very effective use of social media, allowed the President to win both times even though his approval ratings had fallen sharply as he approached his second term.

While this wasn’t documented, to my knowledge, it is also likely that the President used analytics to win his first primary, suggesting that the coming election could be a battle of analytics systems more than of ideas and affiliations. Analytics systems can tell you how to use your campaign chest most effectively and can help you avoid pitfalls.

Well, IBM this week announced two things that could apply here, a partnership with the Weather Company and an IoT organization. Both will make Watson far more capable and lay a path where Watson could become a kingmaker, er President maker.

The Problems with Analytics

The problem with analytics is that typically you need a data scientist to pose the question and interpret the answer. Executives, even in technology companies, don’t have this skill set and politicians rarely rise to the level of skill in this regard that executives do. This means that in companies, and particularly in campaigns, folks learn to provide answers the folks in power want to hear, which appears to have been key to the Romney campaign failure in the presidential election. Romney was told that he was massively ahead and couldn’t lose, when instead he was behind and couldn’t win. Had Romney known of the problem before it became history, he might have been able to make changes that would have assured a different outcome. But his relatively small team took the easy way out and told him what he wanted to hear.

The other problem is that if executives can’t figure out what questions to ask, neither can politicians. This is where it gets interesting. Not only do you need a natural language interface, you need to embed an expert system that can look at the data and reach independent conclusions automatically, supplying a timely recommendation even if a question isn’t asked.

This is the subtle part of the IBM announcement, the ability to anticipate what users need to know even if they don’t know they need to know it. And giving that heads-up at a critical point in time.

Carly Fiorina vs. Hillary Clinton

Given that Carly Fiorina plans on entering the race, this is the part that will be interesting. Both candidates are women hell bent on breaking the biggest glass ceiling in the world, and both have intimate knowledge of how analytics can be used. Hillary Clinton because she saw how the guy that beat her and who she eventually worked for as Secretary of State used them successfully, and Fiorina because she comes out of the technology market and should have at least a strong base understanding of how you could use the technology to advantage.

White House

Granted, Joe Biden could also learn the same lesson, but I’m pretty sure he doesn’t even really listen to the voice in his head so listening to an advanced computer system is likely a bridge too far. This potentially makes the two female candidates the most powerful on the election playing field. While Clinton is better positioned, Fiorina’s background may make her more expert with these tools. However, just because someone can and should use tools like this doesn’t mean they will, and it isn’t uncommon for an executive or a politician to look right at something and still not see it.

Wrapping Up: Watson’s Vote the Only One That Counts

Now, I don’t have any information that any candidate is going to use Watson, even though most are likely to use analytics in some way. However, if Watson is used, it should provide a far better weapon, in terms of timeliness and relevancy, in the election battle than other alternatives. If it is configured aggressively, it could provide the kind of advanced intelligence that could result in an election upset. Ironically, given that this is a technology product and women are underrepresented in technology, the female candidates have the best chance of using this technology to their advantage. If they did, and one of them won, the irony of using a tool created mostly by men to shatter the biggest glass ceiling in the world  would be legendary.

Rob Enderle is President and Principal Analyst of the Enderle Group, a forward-looking emerging technology advisory firm.  With over 30 years’ experience in emerging technologies, he has provided regional and global companies with guidance in how to better target customer needs; create new business opportunities; anticipate technology changes; select vendors and products; and present their products in the best possible light. Rob covers the technology industry broadly. Before founding the Enderle Group, Rob was the Senior Research Fellow for Forrester Research and the Giga Information Group, and held senior positions at IBM and ROLM. Follow Rob on Twitter @enderle, on Facebook and on Google+

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