IBM to take Watson mobile with developer challenge

Big Blue is funding a developer challenge to encourage mobile developers to come up with applications that use its intelligent cloud-based service Watson.

Marguerite Reardon Former senior reporter
Marguerite Reardon started as a CNET News reporter in 2004, covering cellphone services, broadband, citywide Wi-Fi, the Net neutrality debate and the consolidation of the phone companies.
Marguerite Reardon
4 min read
IBM chief Ginni Rometty addresses attendees at Mobile World Congress 2014 in Barcelona. IBM

IBM wants to bring its Jeopardy-winning cognitive computing system Watson to the mobile industry.

During a keynote address at Mobile World Congress 2014, IBM CEO Ginni Rometty announced the IBM Watson Mobile Developer Challenge, a global competition to promote the development of mobile consumer and business apps powered by Watson.

During the next three months, IBM is calling on software developers who are willing to develop and bring to market a commercial application that leverages Watson capabilities, such as the ability to answer complex questions posed in natural language with speed, accuracy, and confidence. Three winners will receive IBM support to further develop their apps and bring them to market.

Rometty explained that Watson, first developed by IBM researchers to show what was possible in combining cognitive computing and natural language processing, has become far more than the novelty and headline-grabbing artificially intelligent computer system that competed against Jeopardy champions on TV a few years ago.

Since then, the company has created a Watson division, and IBM has been pouring more money into the developments to commercialize the technology. But in addition to continuing its own research and commercializing elements of Watson, IBM is also reaching out to a broader ecosystem of customers, partners, and developers to come up with their own creative applications for Watson.

IBM's Watson during its 2011 appearance on Jeopardy. Screenshot by Marguerite Reardon/CNET

The technology is already being used in several industries, including banking, health care, and retail. For instance, at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, oncologists are using the technology to help diagnose and treat cancer patients. Using the Watson "cloud" service, the doctors feed Watson data on clinical trials; information regarding treatments; and personal statistics on patients, which the cognitive computing engine uses to provide feedback on treatments. IBM showed a video in which a doctor at Sloan-Kettering asked Watson for a revised course of action for treatment of a patient, speaking in natural language to make the request. And then Watson answered with options for an individualized treatment plan.

Watson isn't replacing the need for a doctor, the oncologist in the video pointed out. Instead it presents more options to help the real doctors make more-informed decisions.

In an onstage interview with tech journalist David Kirkpatrick, Rometty talked about how Watson is being used in retail. She described how the outdoor clothing company The North Face is using it to help customers buy equipment and apparel.

She demonstrated the service by telling Watson about a trip she planned to Patagonia. Watson answered with recommendations for the type of clothing she needed and the backpack she should use. It also told her to get an ABS. She said she wasn't sure what that was and looked on a typical search engine for an explanation. She said the Web search request brought back dozens of explanations about antilock braking systems on cars.

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Clearly this was not the ABS that the North Face Watson application was recommending. She asked Watson what ABS was. And she was told in plain spoken language that it is a special emergency airbag system used by hikers and skiers during an avalanche.

"Watson knew I wasn't asking about antilock brakes," she said. She explained that the service was intelligent enough to put her request in the context of her discussion regarding what to bring on a trip to Patagonia.

"It had to know where Patagonia was, what the climate is like, and that I might encounter an avalanche," she said.

With the new developer challenge, Rometty said, IBM wants to bring Watson to the mobile industry to see what types of applications mobile developers will come up with to leverage the intelligence service.

While other technology companies, such as Apple, have tried to offer a similar voice-activated intelligent system for mobile phones, those systems haven't even come close to the cognitive ability Watson has achieved. Initially, Watson's technology was too big to cram into a mobile device. When it first appeared in 2011 on the Jeopardy TV show, the system of servers took up an entire room. But IBM has worked aggressively to shrink the technology, and now it can be delivered as a cloud-based service, Rometty said.

Of course, IBM and Apple aren't the only companies working on artificial intelligence technology that uses natural language as an input. Google recently bought London-based artificial intelligence company DeepMind for $500 million. And other tech giants, such as Facebook and Yahoo, are making forays into the world of artificial intelligence.

Still, Rometty thinks IBM has a leg up compared with the rest of the industry.

"Every major invention in data and analytics has come from IBM," she said.