Is IBM Watson Struggling?

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    On December 11, IT Business Edge posted a slideshow that focused on IBM Watson, the super computer that famously beat Jeopardy champ Ken Jennings in 2011. The main theme was that IBM is seeking ways to transform Watson from a clever (and, to most of us, somewhat depressing) parlor trick into a significant source of revenue.

    The Wall Street Journal suggested this week that the going got tough. It posted a story today that implies that IBM’s efforts to turn Watson’s artificial intelligence (AI) into a money maker are coming up short. The story says that IBM CEO Virginia Rometty told executives last October that the goal was for Watson to hit $10 billion in annual revenue in 10 years, but that to date the platform has faltered:

    But Watson had total revenue of less than $100 million as of late October, according to the transcript. One of its first big projects, with the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, was ‘in a ditch’ in early 2013, said Manoj Saxena, the executive overseeing Watson.

    The story raises a lot of questions, few of which relate directly to the efficacy of AI in general or Watson in particular. Essentially, what is the relationship between the steps IBM recently has taken, such as putting Watson in the cloud, and the apparently meager returns? Did the lack of revenue spur the moves, or is Watson struggling despite them? Were they part of a plan, or Hail Marys as the initiative faltered? Is the fact that Watson has only reached the $100 million mark by the start of 2014 a surprise or expected?

    In other words, it is quite possible that the great gap between $100 million total and the $1 billion annualized figure shows that the platform is a disappointment. It is equally possible that everything is going along as expected. 

    All the news this week wasn’t about whether Watson is struggling or not, though. Geoanalytics firm GCS, which is based in Missoula, Montana, said that its new hire Rob Kinnear, as Director of Strategic Partnerships, will be tasked with “development of new markets for custom Big Data solutions built on top of the IBM Watson cognitive computing technology.” The release describes Kinnear’s background and IBM Watson. It is clear from the release that the company believes in Watson and is building it into its business and investment planning.

    The bigger question is likely the future of AI in general. Some signs show that it may become a popular acronym in the near future. For instance, a consortium of universities and private firms in the United Kingdom has joined on the ORCHID project. The idea is to combine AI and old-fashioned human kind to help in a disaster. The idea is that so much happens so quickly in a disaster that a dispassionate and awesomely capable platform, ORCHID calls them Human Agent Collectives, can save lives and property:

    Computers’ data-crunching abilities mean they are good at making sense of the huge amounts of information generated during an emergency from local status reports, social media, and the array of organisations involved in the relief effort.

    Two questions come into play: How is IBM Watson doing and, more broadly, is the bloom off the AI rose? The answer to each may become apparent during 2014. What is already clear is that Watson has achieved what undoubtedly is an AI first: It is a character in an Off-Broadway play.

    Carl Weinschenk
    Carl Weinschenk
    Carl Weinschenk Carl Weinschenk Carl Weinschenk is a long-time IT and telecom journalist. His coverage areas include the IoT, artificial intelligence, artificial intelligence, drones, 3D printing LTE and 5G, SDN, NFV, net neutrality, municipal broadband, unified communications and business continuity/disaster recovery. Weinschenk has written about wireless and phone companies, cable operators and their vendor ecosystems. He also has written about alternative energy and runs a website, The Daily Music Break, as a hobby.

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