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IBM banks on Watson for progress and profit

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IBM reported profits this week; they still made a pile of money, but it was the 12th straight quarter — that is, three straight years — of falling revenue.

Though known for hardware, IBM wants to be a major player in cloud computing, specifically in what the company calls cognitive computing. Their plan relies on the Jeopardy-winning super computer, Watson.

Marketplace’s Ben Johnson visited the IBM Watson building in Manhattan this week. And while you can’t see Watson — it’s an amalgam of interconnected mega-servers and fans whirring away — its technology could hold great promise.

When Johnson went to visit Watson’s human collaborators, he found them in a futuristic glass building in Manhattan, no buttons in the elevators. 

The goal of cognitive computing is simple on the surface: a computer that can hold a conversation. 

It’s “the step before you get to artificial intelligence,” Johnson says. “Google Now, Apple’s Siri, Microsoft Cortana are all part of this idea.”

What’s not simple for a computer, is the vast amount of data that flows between two humans in even the simplest conversation. However, improving this process could speed up a lot of slow conversations that still take place person-to-person, or the data that we fill out in forms that later has to be entered into computers. 

Sound technical? Let’s take this into a frustrating real-world location, the doctor’s office. 

“Medical information doubles every three years. And in 2020, it will be doubling every 73 days. Your doctor’s not going to be able to keep pace with that volume of information,” said Steve Gold, Vice President of IBM’s Watson group. “But Watson has a voracious appetite. It reads and understands all this information in context and become this assistant.”

Instead of filling out reams of forms at every doctor visit, and waiting on that giant piece of paper in the back office, you could be talking to Watson until the doctor comes in. 

“Then, there’s a three-way conversation [with] you, and the doctor, and the computer,” Johnson said. “It actually could be really good for helping the doctor understand the full context of the patient, getting a good prognosis and a good way to a cure.”

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