IBM Watson and You: Why cognitive computing is changing every industry

“… and that is how cognitive computing will change your business” I summarized on the back of a napkin, across the table from the general manager of a major luxury brand in Las Vegas.

During lunch, we had discussed the IBM conference here in town, and the value of IBM Watson. The IBM Inter-Connect conference, and IBM itself, has evolved quickly to embrace and accelerate the adoption of this centerpiece of their cloud services. Cognitive computing possible with IBM Watson is the highlight of the solutions this year, and my Twitter feed and Instagram are full of insights from the event still in progress.

So what is cognitive computing?

A simple definition: cognitive computing is the result of mankind’s efforts to create a thinking machine. What sounds like science fiction is in fact, here and now. The conference this week has well illustrated how leading companies are leveraging (and quickly outpacing competitors) through the use cognitive analytics.

IBM Watson is one such platform, though not a single ‘thing’ or system. It is a collection of nearly two dozen technologies which have been fused together to create a reasoning solution that you can leverage through the Cloud.

Voice, video, facial and concept-pattern recognition are all now part of the standard Watson offering, as is the ability to consider and respond to natural language queries like “Hello Watson, what are the 3 largest deals we closed last year, by quarter and by country?” Watson has been trained on the meaningful structure of 300 million words, and is learning a half dozen languages now. And yes — it still plays Jeopardy really, really well.

The use cases for Cognitive Computing are many, and were well illustrated at the conference. Industries utilizing Watson include logistics, financial services, retail, consumer goods, construction & real estate, transportation, automotive, government / smart cities, professional services, and life sciences. The recent IBM acquisition of the Weather Channel, and the multi-billion dollar investment in Health technology companies, were also highlighted.

There was even an illustration how a Watson-enabled ‘dating app’, through a company called Connectidy, can help you determine whether your online match is really worth your time!

Why does Cognitive Computing matter to your business?

In short, your survival as a business depends on your ability to leverage your data going forward. The explosion of data-producing devices (ala the Internet of Things or IoT) and data rich platforms in our world are growing rapidly, and there is no slow down envisioned. Those companies which harness and effectively utilize data science on this information, and cognitive capabilities therein — will know their optimal business model, be able to better de-risk business choices, and surface operations issues before they become crisii.

Those companies which do not invest the time and money in data science and the cognitive capabilities will be overtaken within the next decade (or less). This is not my prediction — this is from the insights of the leading research organizations and white glove consultancies. Companies which do not move on this, will be left behind or be taken over.

Is IBM Watson (or any of the cognitive solutions) a black box solution that can be implemented and magically work?

As with any highly-complex innovation, adoption is not simple though the process is manageable.

First, you need to know your business well, and the rules of business operation / process / risk / investment. With your knowledge (your ‘secret sauce’ of business), Watson Analytics can help you explore vast amounts of business data and surface knowledge about your business previously locked away in the pile of untapped information.

Second, to maximize the potential of analytics — you need to teach Watson or any cognitive solution what is being analyzed. This is where data science and industry specialists come together. An oft quoted illustration is the medical industry work done with cancer diagnosis and treatment options by IBM Watson over the past decade. Watson was provided thousands of medical journals and nearly 100 years of medical knowledge, as well as the medical charts and outcomes of many thousand cancer patients.

A group of medical specialists then spent a few months ‘teaching’ Watson what ‘was cancer’ and what was not. After a period of time, Watson became adept at detection and recommendation, and is now supporting medical professionals in the treatment of cancer patients in a number of medical facilities.

Third, understand the differences between ‘Analytics’ and ‘cognitive’. The Watson analytics offering above is not yet “cognitive computing”. Analytics is a study of what has happened through parameters and logic. Cognitive is the ability to actually think as a machine about why — reason through what is being presented, understand nuance in language, concept, and tone (there is now even a verbal tone engine for use) — and provide insights on what are the best course of action next.

Why does Cognitive Computing matter?

Cognitive Computing takes the step ahead into acting as your business ‘Jarvis’ (ala the Iron Man movie franchise) — a digital team member who handles tasks and projects which a human being was only previously been able to perform. Cognitive computing can perform activities like providing call center support, outsourcing & business process analysis, or data processing of disparate information (think insurance forms, financial accounts information, or legal paperwork.)

To illustrate this, a brief twenty second example of a robot-enabled Watson application (yep — robot enabled) — acting as a credit card services department (see the video here).

What has been illustrated often this week: what was outsourced, off-shored, or performed by team’s of experts, can now be handled by a thinking machine in record time, without a need for sleep or dealing with cultural barrier / distance. Entire industries which are based on hourly efforts, data processing, and customer service will be tilted by the Cognitive Computing solutions ahead.

In the case of my dinner companion (and soon to be client of our firm, one hopes) — he has information from separate systems, with a handful of common threads that no one looks at closely.

The information is large, technical, and data rich, and somewhere in the midst are insights on ‘optimal hours for operation’, seasonal impacts on quarterly profitability, and how to identify top / return customers and target them for greater engagement.

Taking the client’s information into Watson will allow for a business analytic to be built illustrating what has happened historically, how that ties to customer demographics, weather patterns, and seasonable business events in Las Vegas. Further — with Cognitive Computing atop, the future-looking possibilities and ‘what if’ scenarios can be advised by the Watson platform. He can better manage labor cost, and forecast his revenues based on anticipated events (like El Nino weather this summer).

What does it mean for most industries ahead?

For some companies, cognitive computing will challenge (disrupt surely), and potentially end entire industry business models.

As such, it is my advice every company needs to begin a data science / analytics efforts and consider how they can leverage one of these growing list of cognitive platforms.

While the topic of cognitive computing is complex, the business implication is simple: be a market leader, or be an also ran. The stakes are higher than ever, and the speed at which these cognitive solutions can be spun up and brought to market are astounding.

Which brings the last question, are you ready for your Cognitive solution to be envisioned? IBM Watson is. And up for a game of Jeopardy if you like too. To learn more, visit

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When not solving Cognitive Computing puzzles with lunchtime companions, the author is the CEO and founder of Practically Digital, a strategy consultancy firm based in Chicago. You can learn more about Practically Digital and their digital strategy services at — or attend one of their ‘drinks and digital’ events (sign up via the website)

This is an independent post and the opinion solely of the author. The author has not received compensation from IBM or any vendor for the content herein.

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