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IBM’s Watson to get push in Asia-Pacific

LiveMint logoLiveMint 27-05-2014 Moulishree Srivastava

New Delhi: International Business Machines Corp. (IBM) plans to set up two centres of excellence in Asia-Pacific to tap the region for more business for its supercomputer Watson, and scout for skilled people to implement projects.

“We will be announcing some of the investments in Asia-Pacific around two centres of excellence in the region in a couple of weeks,” Michelle Unger, vice-president of worldwide sales at IBM Watson, said in an interview on Monday.

Watson’s cognitive computing platform—which is modelled on the way the human brain works and can learn from experience—is yet to find a taker in India, but Unger said the company is in discussions with executives in industries including telecom, finance and banking and insurance. These firms have huge amounts of data that needs to be processed to draw insights. Watson can help specialists with that.

Watson, which has in-built artificial intelligence technology like IPsoft’s Eliza humanoid program (it can have natural language conversations and behaves on par with an actual person), has been tested by IBM mainly in the healthcare sector. It can play a crucial role in big data analytics as it can sift quickly through huge volumes of medical data, such as patient records, to suggest treatment options. Some of the US-based companies including M.D. Anderson Cancer Center and Citigroup, are already using Watson.

Most of the clients for Watson are in the US. IBM is looking at expanding its clients in Europe and the Asia-Pacific.

“The initial investments we made in deep Q&A (the question and answer model used by Watson, where it can analyse natural language questions) were in the US and other countries, where the natural language is English. We have just started to take investments outside of pure English-speaking countries,” Unger said. “We are making significant investments in some of the use cases (where Watson has been implemented) that can have an impact on India.”

IBM has ambitious plans for Watson.

In January, 2011, when Watson outmatched Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter in the television quiz show Jeopardy, hopes ran high within the company.

The company’s chief executive officer Virginia “Ginni” Rometty told executives she hopes Watson will generate $10 billion in annual revenue within 10 years, according to an October 2013 conference-call transcript reviewed by The Wall Street Journal (WSJ).

But Watson had total revenue of less than $100 million as of late October, according to the transcript, WSJ reported on 7 January.

“We still consider Watson a start-up within IBM, so, as with any start-up, we are still learning, trying to grow and figure out what should be the next step in terms of growth,” said Unger, adding the company has also been scouting Spanish-speaking market places and looking to open another centre of excellence in Europe.

In January, IBM announced a $1 billion investment in a new business unit for Watson, along with a $100 million venture-capital fund for building apps based on the technology. On 19 May, IBM acquired an artificial intelligence company, Cognea, to complement Watson’s business.

IBM “has kind of missed the bus”, according to Gaurav Sharma, research manager, enterprise India, at researcher International Data Corp. (IDC).

He was referring to the fact that the company didn’t open the Watson platform for the developer community until recently; as a result, the company is late in making the platform available in the market.

Sharma added that Watson won’t be able to pick up in emerging countries like India, “unless there is an ecosystem, including an underlying infrastructure like cloud or the devices where this platform can be integrated; applications through which it can be accessed; and skilled professionals to implement it”.

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