How IBM Plans to Help Users Out-Learn the Competition

Make no mistake about it: IBM is into a lot of business use cases, but it’s now made Watson its beating heart, impacting virtually all parts of its business.


LAS VEGAS – IBM’s Think 2018 conference, the first-of-its-kind rollup of five older conferences--IBM World of Watson, InterConnect, Edge, Amplify and Connect—has attracted more than 35,000 people representing most of the countries in the world to the Mandalay Bay Conference Center this week.

“This is officially the largest event in IBM’s history!” Ginny Rometty (pictured, with Dave McKay of Royal Canadian Bank), who holds the gold trifecta titles of CEO, chairman and president of the most venerable IT company on the globe, said March 20 in her opening remarks.

While it’s true that all the other topics that bring people together at a major show like this include security, networking, servers, processors, cloud services, automation, software development and many more, at the core of it all remains one simple entity: Watson, the IBM stake in the ground of artificial intelligence, machine learning and deep learning.

Make no mistake about it: IBM is into a lot of business use cases, but it’s now made Watson its beating heart, impacting virtually all parts of its business.

'Be the Disruptor, Rather than the Disrupted'

Rometty captured well the theme of the conference in her first few sentences on stage.

"Both the business and technology architectures change at the same time. If you look back in history, that is about every 25 years," Rometty said. "It has the potential to change everything. What that means: Everybody in here runs a business. It's a business that can learn exponentially (that succeeds); and if you learn exponentially, you become the disruptor, versus being disrupted."

Watson is a tool that helps businesses learn exponentially. That’s IBM’s story, and it’s sticking to it.

“Humans learn linearly,” Rometty said. “They learn one thing, move to the next, then to the next. Learning exponentially means that while learning is happening, other factors are coming in from other directions, yet it’s all remembered.

“In the last 60 years, there have been only two times, when because of technology, business could actually advance on what I would call an exponential curve, and not just a linear curve. One was Moore’s Law (1965), which stated that processing doubled in power every 18 months. What that gave way to was a huge surge of computing everywhere, and basically the back offices of everything.”

Third Exponential Shift is Just Beginning

In 1995 came something called Metcalfe’s Law (for 3COM founder Bob Metcalfe, who developed Ethernet), which said that the value of a network is equal to the square of all the nodes on the network, Rometty said. “Forget about the math—that’s what gave rise to platform companies like Facebook,” she said.

“I don’t think anybody would deny that both those things have profoundly changed business and society.”

Rometty then said that the third beginning of an exponential shift is about to happen.

“I want you to take all that data, add AI (artificial intelligence) to it, and that’s where you get exponential learning. As a result, you get great competitive advantage by out-learning everyone else,” she said.

That also means that we might need a new "law" to go with this. "Rometty's Law," perhaps?

So that’s where IBM wants to take Watson—to every corner of the business world. To industrial use cases, to automated vehicles, to business offices, to networks and eventually to consumers. We’ve already got Siri, Alexa, Google and Cortana—why not Watson in our phones and PCs? The betting is that we’ll undoubtedly be seeing Watson in various forms in our personal lives more and more often as time goes by.

Watson Uses Different Names

For example, it has already been co-opted by the Royal Bank of Canada as a friendly bot called Jingo in the bank’s app. In fact, Watson is quietly making inroads as the underlying technology in many apps we’re not told about, because they are white-labeled, so to speak, by IBM customers.

“Man plus machine will always generate a better outcome than man alone or machine alone," Rometty said. "This era will have many winners and not just a few ones. If you believe in a world of data, you will want to work with companies you trust."

IBM Think 2018 continues through March 22.

Chris Preimesberger

Chris J. Preimesberger

Chris J. Preimesberger is Editor-in-Chief of eWEEK and responsible for all the publication's coverage. In his 15 years and more than 4,000 articles at eWEEK, he has distinguished himself in reporting...