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From MWC2013 : IBM > the continuing, never ending marvels of Watson

March 29th, 2013 |  Published in IBM, Mobile World Congress 2013

IBM Watson


29 March 2013 – This was the second year in a row at the Mobile World Congress (MWC) that we had the opportunity to spend a fair amount of time with the IBM telecom team and members of the Watson team in attendance.  Paul Bloom, Chief Technology Officer for Telecom Research, gave us riviting summary … it was a lot of info, a lot of subjects, and a lot of arcane technology but he made it interesting and fun … of what IBM is doing in the communications industry which is dealing with an explosion of data in the connected world.  We talked about escalating traffic loads, ever-increasing network and customer data, and keeping a competitive advantage.  We talked about Watson and how the technology can improve communications by applying analytics to manage network bottlenecks, how customer customer interaction with call centers can rise to new levels (more about that below), and just the developments in more natural man/machine collaboration.

We also had a chance to chat with David Konopnicki again this year, manager of Information Retrieval Solutions at IBM’s Haifa, Israel  Research Lab. Last year David provided what is probably the best short answer to what Watson is: at its core, a computing system that can extract facts and understand the relationships in vast quantities of data with lightning speed. What sets Watson apart from other computing systems is its ability to understand natural, human language, which is inherently full of ambiguity. This power, combined with its ability to judge each possible answer in real time and decide which one is most likely the correct answer, marks a major leap in computing innovation.

And we got a hint … a hint … that Watson might be coming to your mobile phone as an app.  Cool.

We have written numerous posts about Watson in the past two years (all part of our upcoming e-book IBM, a culture of innovation and analytics) and its revolutionary effect on the information ecosystem.  The medical applications we learned about last year at FutureMed and since has overwhelmed us with material, both found and also made available to us. For example, this coming spring at Edge2013 there will be presentations on how the Watson technology is used by the insurer WellPoint and the Sloan-Kettering Memorial oncology center to provide assistance to physicians in selecting the most appropriate treatment for patients with cancer.

But this year at MWC we were most intrigued by an application many might find more prosaic but one whose business need is spot on.  It is “Watson As A Customer Service Agent” or “Watson, Call Center Maven”.

Our guide was Salil Ahuja, Product Manager for IBM Watson Solutions.  He noted that U.S. companies spend $112 billion on call center labor and software, yet half of the 270 billion customer-service calls go unresolved each year.  Seems like an opportunity for an enhanced cognitive computer, yes?  And let’s face it: rare is the occasion when you reach a live person and when you do, rare is the time they know what they are talking about.  Watson, your up, babe!!

The product is in beta with quite a few companies … and not just U.S. companies … and there will be a full release this Spring but in a nutshell:

1.  The working title seems to be “Ask Watson” and will offer help through various channels:  Web chats, email, smartphone apps and SMS. Voice recognition software was mentioned (no names provided) so one suspects a service like Siri or Nuance.

2.  Companies will be able to have their own interface and branding. So what is very good about all this is that consumers will be able to experience this new level of personalized service but through the brands they already have relationships with: banks, phone service providers, insurance companies, favorite stores, etc.

3.  It will do something few call center workers do very effectively:  quickly address customers’ questions, offer advice to guide their purchase decisions, and troubleshoot their problems.  Please note we saw numerous demos during MWC (kudos to Salil for looking pretty damn chipper over 4 days of doing them) and it was astounding.

4.  The computer will be fed loads of product information such as catalogs, training manuals, product disclosures, terms and conditions, emails, customer forums, and call center logs, as well as publicly available feeds and reviews from places like Amazon, Yelp, etc.  Salil said IBM has tested its own call centers and Watson made significant reductions in search time for information.

5.  It’s the tech, stupid.  Watson pulls up stuff that an agent cannot because it is looking for semantic links, not just doing text-matching based on keywords. Watson can understand natural-language questions — either spoken or written in English — and it responds with not just answers but evidence and confidence levels in those answers. Second, Watson can engage across channels, be it phones, tablets, websites, messaging or email. Third, Watson learns over time and serves customers better because it can personalize the customer experience.

Bada bing.

Salil summed up in a way that just seems to typify what IBM is all about: “Whatever the space, IBM does not do anything unless it can bring significant value, it can bring a transformational nature to eliminate the problem, deal with the issue better.”

And when he is talking about values he is not talking about ethics or corporate responsibility (all very important) but a company’s lasting goals:  in IBM.’s case, satisfying customer needs, building long-term relationships and pursuing breakthrough innovations. Pursuing breakthrough innovations is what it does.

For our full Mobile World Congress 2013 coverage click here.

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