Why IBM's Watson Is Huge for Developers

By Darryl K. Taft  |  Posted 2013-11-14

Why IBM's Watson Is Huge for Developers

This has been a big week for developers—a big week for developers working with industry icons.

Yesterday Microsoft not only officially launched Visual Studio 2013 and .NET 4.5.1, but also introduced Visual Studio Online, a set of development services and offerings running on Windows Azure that helps development teams create next-generation applications. Microsoft also released a preview of Visual Studio Online "Monaco," the code name for a new service that enables a lightweight coding environment in the browser—all powerful stuff.

Then today, IBM announced it is opening up its Watson cognitive computing technology to developers. This is huge. This is major.

Exposing Watson to developers will give IBM an entry into a whole new set of partnerships and help drive growth in the nascent cognitive computing space, which Big Blue helped pioneer. What's more, it offers developers and entrepreneurs with smart ideas a way to quickly and easily get into markets they might otherwise not have had an opportunity to even consider without building up major teams and amassing loads of VC funding. Of course, they'll still need funding of some sort, just maybe not as much.

Watson is an artificially intelligent computer system capable of answering questions posed in natural language, developed in IBM's DeepQA project by a research team led by principal investigator David Ferrucci. Watson's software was written in various languages, including Java, C++ and Prolog, and it uses the Apache Hadoop framework for distributed computing, the Apache UIMA (Unstructured Information Management Architecture) framework, IBM's DeepQA software and the SUSE Linux Enterprise Server 11 operating system. According to IBM, more than 100 different techniques are used to analyze natural language, identify sources, find and generate hypotheses, find and score evidence, and merge and rank hypotheses.

From Day One of Watson, I could envision the opportunities for the technology, should it ever be exposed to outside developers. And so at every opportunity, in every interview I was granted with IBM senior execs and researchers—including Ferrucci—I would ask whether and how the company would expose Watson to developers. The answer was always, "We're working on it, but we're just not ready yet." Well, now they're ready. Watson is out there for developers to go get some.

Not so fast, however. Sandy Carter, IBM's general manager of ecosystem development, said IBM will not be handing the keys to Watson to just anybody. There is a qualification process, she said. Since IBM announced plans to open Watson to developers, Carter told me her phone has been ringing off the hook with developers vying to get in on the ground floor with this opportunity. Initially, IBM is targeting developers in three main areas: health care, retail, and travel & transportation, she said.

Back to some of those early conversations I had with IBM about Watson and developers. A little more than a year ago I spoke with Steve Mills, IBM's senior vice president and group executive for software and systems, about it. Mills could see this thing clearly even then. "How many different environments are there out there where having a system that can ‘'learn' is useful?" he asked, implying that the opportunity could be limitless.

Why IBM's Watson is Huge for Developers

When asked how IBM would expose Watson to developers, Mills noted that the projects IBM was working on at the time were "very contained" projects with specific clients. However, he said part of the effort with Watson was to modularize and tool Watson to make it easier and easier for IBM customers to do things with it.

"There is a fair amount of tooling that's going to be required to make this thing more digestible," Mills said. "We'll probably go to a T-shirt-sized approach to Watson delivery in the future, where you get a small, medium and large kind of offering. That model for small and medium will not work without effective tooling around the environment to make it easier for you to stand it up and use it."

They've done it. IBM will be launching the IBM Watson Developers Cloud, a cloud-hosted marketplace where application providers of all sizes and industries will be able to tap into resources for developing Watson-powered apps. This will include a developer toolkit, educational materials and access to Watson's application programming interface (API).

Mills also noted that given IBM's history in dealing with app dev, Watson represents a little bit of back to the future. "We and others were delivering Prolog- and LISP-based application development tools back in the late '80s and early '90s," he said. "We all thought that these techniques were going to move faster in the market than they ended up moving. Then it came out again as we did the Watson project."

Asked if IBM has received interest from government agencies, particularly intelligence entities, Mills simply said: "It attracts their attention. It's the kind of thing they like because they're always looking for a needle in a haystack. Their problem is the massive quantity of all the information they have to sift through to find somebody, and they want to know who you are connected to, who do you know, who have you talked to—it's all a degree of separation analysis."

Asked if Watson could be used to power something like "the machine" on the popular CBS drama "Person of Interest," which is an all-seeing, all-knowing database that helps solve crimes and save lives, Mills noted how Jeff Jonas, an IBM fellow and chief scientist of the IBM Entity Analytics Group (who at the time was CEO of an analytics company named Systems Research & Development, which IBM acquired), stepped ABC News through all the publicly available data that existed on the 9/11 hijackers and showed how they were all connected to each other. The data was there.

"We're a big software provider for doing that kind of analysis," Mills said.

There have been all kinds of interesting Watson stories, including the one Ferrucci told at a gathering of analysts at IBM's centennial celebration two years ago. Ferrucci told us how early on his team fed Watson the Urban Dictionary to open it up to slang terms, but when Watson began to deliver foul-mouthed responses to questions they were forced to scrub that data.

Watson takes what you give it and turns it into answers. This is definitely a huge opportunity for developers—and for IBM.

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