IBM Opens Watson Up to Developers

IBM announced it is opening up its Watson cognitive computing system to developers.

IBM announced that it is opening up its Watson cognitive computing technology to developers by providing access to Watson via a development platform in the cloud.

Watson, which is perhaps most famous for trouncing human competitors on the Jeopardy! game show, represents the first wave of a new era of cognitive computing that IBM hopes to lead the industry in. The technology has been applied to use cases in healthcare, financial services, retail and other sectors, but this will be the first time IBM will open up the platform broadly.

“This is a day we’ve been looking forward to – opening the power of Watson to the innovators of the world,” said John Gordon, vice president of IBM’s Watson solutions division. “People can use Watson’s deep insight to transform all of us across the planet. This will be a major competitive advantage for folks.”

Beginning in 2014, IBM will offer developers access to a more potent version of Watson than the one that whipped up on humans on Jeopardy! two years ago, the company said.

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.

Gordon said IBM will provide multiple components to help developers take advantage of Watson. One will be a platform for the ecosystem to build applications on, including the Watson development cloud. IBM also will provide a Watson content store, which will serve as a channel for developers to bring their Watson-based solutions to market. In addition, IBM will team with a set of talent partners to help developers who require assistance with the Watson technology. And Big Blue will wield its influence with the venture capital (VC) community to help new entrepreneurs get started building off of the Watson technology, Gordon said.

In short, IBM will deliver a cloud-based marketplace, a "sandbox" of resources for developing Watson-powered apps. This includes a developer toolkit, educational materials, access to Watson's APIs, as well as IBM subject matter experts and a network of third-party experts, designers, coders and providers of data-rich content.

IBM set out to make the platform accessible to everyday developers. “The goal was to make it generic,” Gordon said of the approach to deliver a developer platform for Watson. “Early on, we took a team of computer science interns and had them try to embed Watson into their applications,” he said. “That helped us look at where the bottlenecks were and we continued to improve the platform and provide something for professional developers to take advantage of.”

The move to open Watson to developers aims to spur innovation and fuel a new ecosystem of entrepreneurial software app providers – ranging from start-ups and VC-backed companies to established players – who will collectively bring forward a new generation of applications infused with Watson's cognitive computing intelligence.

“I think the goal of us thinking about cognitive computing and delivering on that is extremely important to the industry overall and not just to IBM,” Gordon said. However, he acknowledged that the overall goal is that cognitive computing and Watson represent a “core growth component” for IBM. “We’re at one of those moments in history where we’re not going to be able to recognize right now just how significant this can be,” he said.

By opening up Watson, IBM hopes to fuel a new class of applications that can transform how designers, developers and engineers create new products and services that respond better to the demands of consumers or even anticipate their needs; revolutionize how industries market, develop and sell products to consumers who shop online for retail products, by serving as a “cognitive personal shopper” that guides smart purchase decisions; and serve as an intelligent assistant app delivered via smartphone or the cloud by serving as a health monitor and adviser in managing chronic diseases and promoting wellness.

IBM won’t produce all of these services alone. The idea here is to fuel a new era of cognitive apps to fuel new businesses, products, services and transform industries powered by cognitive technology, IBM said.

Following Watson’s success on the game show, Gordon said IBM began to look at the promise of what Watson could become. “We had to figure out what it took to turn that promise into real, strategic solutions,” he said. “But we always thought from the beginning that the goal was to power an industry.”