Watson: An Incubator for Startups and Innovation

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Rob High, CTO, IBM Watson

Rob High, CTO, IBM Watson

By Rob High

IBM has long played a major role in Silicon Valley. We built a manufacturing plant there in 1943 and opened our IBM Research lab in San Jose in 1956–since then producing a string of technology breakthroughs including the first disk drive, the first data mining algorithms and essential advances in nanotechnology.  My dad got his start as an IBM engineer in the Valley in 1958, so it has a special place in my heart.

IBM’s Watson business, which is based in New York City, is collaborating with dozens of startups in the Valley and San Francisco; and IBM’s venture group has close working relationships with a number of leading venture capitalists there.

To take Watson even further, today, IBM is greatly expanding our presence in this cradle of global technology innovation. We’re opening a Watson hub in San Francisco. This will put IBM closer to, and increase collaboration with, the local start ups, developers, venture capital groups, and academics we’re working with. We’ll host activities aimed at sparking a new wave of innovation built on advances in cognitive computing.

This move is part of a rapid evolution of our Watson technology and business. IDC predicts that by 2018, half of all consumers will interact with services based on cognitive computing on a regular basis. We’re also announcing a major expansion of the Watson Developer Cloud platform. We now offer more than 25 cognitive APIs underpinned by over 50 technologies that developers are pulling off the virtual shelves to quickly create cloud-based applications. Meanwhile, our roster of Watson ecosystem partners continues to grow, with 350 commercial partners building and the first 100 going into market.

Additionally, more than 77,000 people have experimented with the platform–free of charge. Watson Developer Cloud is a sandbox where developers can learn about the technology and rapidly prototype new applications.

By doubling down on our commitment in this region we’re offering entrepreneurs and startups there easier access to our people, technology and collaboration–with which they can build new companies and create new capabilities that will greatly benefit businesses, the global economy, and improve people’s lives.

Though cognitive computing includes some elements of the academic discipline of Artificial Intelligence, it’s a broader idea. Cognitive systems are designed to help people make better decisions by ingesting vast quantities of data, reasoning over the information, learning from their interactions with data and people, and interacting with individuals in ways that are more natural to us. Rather than producing machines that think for people; cognitive computing is all about augmenting human intelligence–helping us think better.

IBM has created a portfolio of cognitive computing solutions that continues to grow and addresses industries ranging from healthcare and financial services to scientific research and retailing. But there’s no way that we can take advantage of all of the innovation opportunities created by the emergence of cognitive. That’s why we’ve opened Watson’s doors to everyone, that is, to you. We believe that creative people in startups and established companies alike will dream up great ideas that we’d never think of. To seed some of those ideas, we’ve set aside $100 million to invest in companies like Welltok, Sellpoints, Modernizing Medicine, Pathway Genomics and WayBlazer.  In addition, we’re encouraging venture capitalists to invest billions more in startups that are determined to amplify human inspiration through cognitive computing.

We call this ecosystem the long tail of cognitive computing.

The original Watson system was built on one API covering 5 technologies. Since opening the Watson platform, we ‘ve expanded that rapidly adding new capabilities in the form of additional APIs representing different reasoning strategies applicable to the human condition.

Some were generated by our own scientists and others came through acquisitions like AlchemyAPI. There are too many to list here, but I’ll mention a few.  The Dialog API makes interactions with people more natural by creating responses tailored to the user’s style. Visual Insights spots patterns and identifies objects in photos or videos. And Concept Insights explores information based on ideas rather than key words.

Each API represents a different reasoning strategy. As we add more APIs and enrich the existing ones, Watson gets ever smarter. You can liken this process to the way children learn mathematics. We start with arithmetic. As we grow up and we’re exposed to more challenging math problems, we learn geometry, algebra and calculus to solve them. Likewise, cognitive systems employ reasoning strategies that are initially targeted at certain types of problems, but they evolve through engineering and machine learning to become more sophisticated and to handle more complex problems. We expect to add even more APIs by next year, covering an even broader spectrum of reasoning capabilities.

All of these new capabilities are plug-and-play resources for people to participate in the API Economy. Our portfolio of APIs enables incredibly powerful and sophisticated applications to be built rapidly–often in just a few months. For instance, it took just two months for Ampsy, a social media marketing company, to develop and release Watson-powered applications for the entertainment industry.

Cognitive represents the third era of computing–as different from today’s standard computing technologies as they were from the tabulating and calculating machines that preceded them. This is an opportunity for all of us to get in on the ground floor of a phenomenon that I believe will help transform business and society.


To learn more about the new era of computing, read Smart Machines: IBM’s Watson and the Era of Cognitive Computing.

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