IBM: A cure for the Big Blues

“IT’S a silly project to work on, it’s too gimmicky, it’s not a real computer-science test, and we probably can’t do it anyway.” These were reportedly the first reactions of the team of IBM researchers challenged to build a computer system capable of winning “Jeopardy!”, a television quiz show. Yet within five years they had created Watson (named after Thomas Watson, who built up the company), which used natural-language programming to understand questions the way a human would, and massive processing power to find the likeliest answer from vast amounts of data. In February 2011 it beat two human “Jeopardy!” champions in a public showdown. Now, less than three years later, Watson is being touted as a business opportunity potentially so lucrative it can get Big Blue out of what has started to look like a serious growth problem.On January 9th, with much fanfare, the computing giant announced plans to invest $1 billion in a new division, IBM Watson Group. By the end of the year, the division expects to have a staff of 2,000 plus an army of external app developers working within its “open Watson ecosystem”. It also unveiled a raft of new projects under development, on top of the handful already revealed in health care, financial services and retailing with firms such as WellPoint and the Cleveland Clinic. Mike Rhodin, who will run the new division, calls it “one of the most…

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