IBM launches a Cognitive Business Era

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IBM chose Ginny Rometty’s keynote slot at Gartner’s annual IT Expo to announce that the era of cognitive computing has arrived. In the context of her keynote, the cognitive advantage is what happens when firms that have become fully digital look for ways to differentiate themselves and leverage the value lurking in their growing data collections.

Cognitive is the next step, adding intelligence to data through advanced analytics, including analyzing the 80-90% of enterprise information that is unstructured. Rometty noted a new research study from the IBM Center for Business Value that indicates that CXOs are broadly unhappy with the business results that they are getting from their existing IT investments and are looking for smarter systems and more insight-driven applications across many business functions.

To help jump start this new era, IBM announced a new, 2,000-person consulting organization within IBM Global Business Services, focused on cognitive computing services. IBM Cognitive Business Solutions will help customers kick start applications and practices that incorporate the technology and analytics suites that have become central to the trend, including machine learning and advanced analytics on structured and unstructured data. The services group will collect data scientists and developers who have had experience working in the cognitive technologies and practices environments, as well as industry experts and change management consultants.

At the same time, IBM doubled down on the cognitive theme by announcing that “Cognitive Business” will become the lead slogan for the company’s global advertising, replacing the “Smarter Planet” strategic branding launched in 2008.

The new “cognitive” branding was already rolling out on Monday Night Football on the evening prior to the Rometty keynote. The first three releases, in what will no doubt be a long-running series of 30-second made-for-TV ads, feature conversations between sympathetic humans seated on a couch and the glowing “poster” representation of Watson used on Jeopardy in 2011.

In one spot, Watson meets Bob Dylan and wastes no time in touting his ability to understand key themes in Dylan’s lyrics by analyzing all his songs and automatically identifying related phrases and concepts. He then offers up his singing skills (who knew?) to the bemused folk rocker. In another, Ken Jennings, the human jeopardy champ who was crushed by Watson in the 2011 contest, catches up with what Watson has been up to, noticing that Watson can now see (image recognition integrated into Watson since the Jeopardy shows. He also offers to help Watson improve his sarcasm detection–a classic stumbling block for text analytics and machine learning systems. The third spot, more conventional, features Annabelle, a precocious kid in a pink outfit surrounded by teddy bears as big as she is. The thrust of this spot is to show that Watson recognizes and treats each individual differently, but that it also knows some general knowledge that makes it more human-like it its interactions. For instance, it knows that Annabelle’s birthday is coming up and that cakes are an expected food item in a birthday celebration. On a more serious note, it shows that it can ingest full medical records for people like Annabelle and help suggest appropriate cancer treatments that match her profile. This will be a profound breakthrough for medical practice that will help guide medical professionals in better diagnosis and more appropriate treatments. In fact, this is a big bet for IBM, which just opened its new Watson Health facility in Cambridge, MA.

IBM’s efforts to play the role of midwife to an emerging market will accelerate adoption of cognitive computing. But we also recognize the risk involved in making such a Big Bet on this direction. As we are well aware at the Cognitive Computing Consortium, it is difficult to be defining for the rest of the world how to think about the market. In this, IBM is the most visible of a small cadre of cognitive computing leaders who are trying to change how we use, and what we can expect from computing systems. They have developed and integrated a wildly disparate group of technically complex technologies to a point where they can be assembled to accomplish something valuable within the attention span of the average executive. They are beguiling the general public into imagining a world where cognitive business will benefit all, rather than eliminate all their jobs; assembling a constellation of partners to carry out the bulk of the field work and also giving them new competencies required to be effective—all of these challenges and more happening at the same time—and doing all of this in today’s unstable business environment.

With big responsibilities come big risks. This campaign has the potential to assemble—with time—the foundations of a new business platform even for a company the size of IBM. Ginny Rometty is clearly determined to put this bet at the center of her legacy. It remains to be seen whether the market is ready to swallow the bait.


About the Author:

Hadley Reynolds is Co-founder and Managing Director at the Cognitive Computing Consortium. He is a leading analyst of the search, content management, and knowledge management industries, researching, speaking, and writing on emerging trends in these technologies and their impact on business practice. He currently leads the publications program at the Consortium.
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