IBM established a new business unit, the IBM Watson Group, aimed at developing and commercializing cloud-delivered cognitive innovations based on the company’s Watson technology. The unit, which will reside in New York City’s Silicon Alley, represents a major move by IBM to focus on cognitive computing and to attempt to move it out to the masses. The unit will be responsible for delivering a new class of software, services and apps that think, improve by learning, and discover answers and insights to complex questions from massive amounts of big data.
IBM will invest more than $1 billion in the Watson Group, including $100 million for venture investments to support the company’s recently launched ecosystem of startups and businesses that are building a new class of cognitive apps powered by Watson in the IBM Watson Developers Cloud.
The IBM Watson Group is headed by Michael Rhodin, who most recently served as senior vice president of IBM’s Software Solutions Group, responsible for delivering industry-specific solutions in high-growth areas such as business analytics, Smarter Commerce, Smarter Cities and social business. Rhodin spoke with eWEEK Senior Editor Darryl K. Taft to share some perspective ahead of IBM’s announcement of the Watson Business Group on Jan. 9.
How deep is IBM planning to go with cognitive computing?
We think cognitive computing is one of the most important innovations in IBM’s hundred-year history. So we’re pretty deep here. This is a big deal for us. As you know, we don’t create groups just to announce something. This is moving around officers of the company, so this is something that’s taken very seriously. This is something we think is the beginning of an entire new era of computing. And as we have been the mainstay in the previous two generations of computing, we don’t plan on giving up that title.
How can you compare this to other major initiatives IBM has undertaken?
If you compare it to other eras of computing, if you go back to the beginning it was all about tabulating equipment. It was mechanical devices that counted stuff. In the ’50s we started down the road of electronic generally programmable computers with the launch of the mainframe. Those are the only two previous generations; this is the next. So this is pretty significant.
The technology involved in Watson is primarily organic to IBM, but do you anticipate acquisitions being a part of this new direction for Watson?
Acquisitions have always been part of our model. And you’ve seen me over the last couple of years be somewhat acquisitive. But the way I believe the market evolves and best materializes is that a combination of internal R&D and external R&D is always healthy.
IBM: 8 Questions With Watson’s Big Boss
Have you put any kind of number on how big this opportunity could be?
About revenue? As you know, we rarely disclose elemental revenue. But the revenue and opportunity here over the next year is a key part of our 2015 road map. We had said that analytics was one of the core elements of the road map, and it was going to grow from $10 billion to $16 billion by 2015. And then later, in part due to the progress we were starting to see with Watson and where it was going, we raised our target from $16 billion to $20 billion. So this is part of that overall umbrella. We view cognitive computing as the sophisticated end of our analytics portfolio.
You’ve had 750 companies that said they wanted to work with IBM and take advantage of the Watson Developer Cloud opportunity?
As soon as we announced the ecosystem, we had 750 companies reach out to start to figure out how they could participate. [Update: That number is now at 900.] And we’ve got a few companies that have initial prototypes of their applications for display. These are companies like Fluid, WellTok and MD Buyline, and we’ve got others that are starting to play out. We have a number of other client engagements that are not announced yet and are coming out later in the year. So we expect this to be a very newsworthy year for us.
What are some of the things you’ll do with that $100 million investment in the ecosystem?
We anticipate working with the VC community to help promising startups get funded and get going around our cognitive technologies.
One of the other things we’ve recognized is that when we started to work with a lot of our clients and started to figure out how cognitive computing aligned with their business, many of them came to the realization that their data, their content, their information was scattered all over the place [and] wasn’t really in a format that was useful for these next-generation systems. So part of what we’ve been doing with our information management portfolio is pulling them together in a set of what I call Watson foundational technologies to help companies clean up their data, understand where it is and get to a single source of the truth that can make that information available to cognitive systems like Watson.
So we have a set of capabilities that we’re calling Watson Foundations, which is a lot of our core information management technologies, but we’ve been evolving them to be part of how we help customers get ready for Watson.
IBM: 8 Questions With Watson’s Big Boss
Can you give me a sense of how this whole Watson vision evolved? At the outset, did IBM foresee this kind of opportunity for a Watson business unit?
I think with any major innovation, the more people see of it the more they start to envision new things. And it’s been like peeling an onion over the last two years. As we all started out and were mesmerized by the success of Watson on “Jeopardy,” we had clients looking at that success and starting to think up their own ideas about what that could do for their business.
That’s clearly what happened in the health care profession. We had doctors watching the “Jeopardy” match on TV and saying, “You know, I need to make sense of all my information. I need to connect that information to questions I have about my patients. And I need help in figuring out how to diagnose problems.” Those ideas are coming from the marketplace. Those ideas are coming from how people are envisioning their own future leveraging these technologies and calling us to work with us on this.
We haven’t really had a demand problem with respect to Watson. We really had to work with clients to understand how ready they were, how their ideas and use cases fit into what the technologies were going to be able to do. And for many of these interactions, we started to come up with new ideas for new pieces of technology. We started to see the need for other componentry in the system like Watson Analytics and Watson Explorer. And we envision more componentry coming throughout the year.
We’ll show some of the new research technologies that are going to move over into the group for rapid commercialization. One of them is a technology called Watson Paths, which is a reasoning engine that helps medical students reason through to what a correct diagnosis might be, with a really unique visualization capability. It’s a component that calls the Watson Q&A engine as a subroutine. So we start to see systems building on top of each other as they come together.
So like any startup at the beginning of an initiative, we keep finding new things, which is one of the things that makes me so excited about this space. It’s that I see an endless array of opportunities in front of us. And I think if we look back at this moment in time 50 years from now, it will be as significant as when we entered the second era of computing in the late ’50s.
I’d like to personalize this a bit. You’ve been at IBM for a long time and have held several high-level positions. How excited are you to be taking on this new role?
I think you could tell by the way I was talking that I could not be more excited as this has been coming together. You know, the incubation of the Watson team has been part of my organization for a while now. Now that it’s ready to go mainstream, I am thrilled to be leading the organization. This will be, after 30 years in this industry, by far the most exciting, most important thing I’ve ever done in my career.
We think what we’ve shown to the world so far is just the tip of the iceberg.