IBM takes a lot of criticism about its Watson business, including from me, but what if Watson ends up living up the the hype and its critics all end up eating crow? There’s a good article in the MIT Technology Review on Tuesday that looks at this question in the realm of health care
—where IBM made some of its boldest claims and suffered some of its most notable setbacks—and raises some very good points about why there’s still a lot of promise in Watson.
Among them (paraphrasing):
- Watson’s shortcomings appear worse because IBM overhyped its capabilities way too early on.
- IBM still has the money and the partnership-making prowess to get access to health data, which is still a big challenge for anyone trying to operate in this space.
- IBM Watson Health has some major executives who are also physicians, and have real-world insights into what the technology ultimately needs to deliver.
- Watson actually does have some good technology behind it, and actually has delivered some meaningful results for customers and partners.
I think the article is probably a relatively accurate assessment of IBM’s current situation with regard to Watson in health care, and very probably applies to the Watson business overall. IBM promised the moon before the technology was really there to deliver and vowed to make Watson a $10 billion business (by 2023) before anybody really had an idea how to make money selling AI software. Big Blue tried to force its vision into reality by investing in Watson-based startups and applying Watson to seemingly every business under the sun, likely hoping something would catch on.
Now we’re at the point where deep learning has recast the conversation about AI, and where IBM has competition everywhere it looks. But it’s also still early enough that IBM—assuming it’s updating Watson’s underlying technologies to account for today’s state of the art—has just a good of chance of cracking major industries like health care as does anybody else.
Its biggest hurdle might be the type of over-the-top marketing for which IBM notoriously has a penchant, and which its AI competitors largely very much do not. If IBM wants Watson to be taken seriously in the AI space, a little restraint will go a long way.
In semi-unrelated IBM news, here’s a story about how IBM is trying to talk some sense into Congress
about the future of artificial intelligence. Bad regulations based on misunderstanding or outdated definitions can stifle technological advances, or at least lead to some really sticky legal situations. We’re seeing that right now with Microsoft and the Justice Department possibly headed to the Supreme Court to settle their case over data privacy.
The more power to any tech companies and any AI experts who can help ensure the United States ends up with laws and regulations that account for some of the riskier parts of AI while still encouraging a fast pace of innovation.