Watson Analytics: Bringing Cognitive to the People

By Gabe Weisert December 14, 2016

The trailer for the 20th Century Fox thriller “Morgan,” about an artificially enhanced human, has all the dark, creepy elements of a sci-fi thriller: lots of reflective glass surfaces, shadowy corridors, and a courteous, but vaguely menacing, young lady with gray skin.But this trailer is unique for one key reason. Its scenes were compiled by a cloud-based AI program from IBM that you’ve probably heard of—Watson.

Yes, an AI made the trailer for a movie about an AI.

It wasn’t a completely automated process. Using experimental Watson APIs and machine learning techniques, the system watched hundreds of thriller movie trailers for visual and auditory parallels, then, after learning what excites audiences, the AI surfaced relevant scenes from its new film for a human editor to arrange. The results are scarily effective.

But AI isn’t just for the movies anymore. Within IBM’s Analytics division, Watson Analytics is being used by many forward-thinking businesses to manage helpdesks, minimize resolution times, optimize sales teams, align compensation plans, benchmark app resiliency, improve customer retention, and more.

As Neil Whitney, IBM’s Director of User Experience and Design, explained at this year’s Subscribed Conference in San Francisco, Watson Analytics is a cloud-based analytics tool that is designed to guide the user through analysis with automated data visualization and discovery using natural language processing, which is the same cognitive capabilities that made its AI counterpart so successful on its famous Jeopardy appearances.

IBM took what makes Watson so compelling—the ability to just ask a question in natural language and the ability to have this system suggest new, exciting offerings and opportunities for you—and built it into an intuitive self-service analytics and data visualization product called Watson Analytics.Users simply load their data, ask a question, and Watson Analytics will answer with suggestions in the form of interactive visualizations. It opens up analytics to a whole world of people who maybe never thought of themselves as analysts or data scientists before.

Today over 40,000 organizations and two million users are taking advantage of Watson Analytics, from barbers and zookeepers to insurance services and financial firms.A restaurateur might upload his point of sales data to find out what dishes are most popular on a given day, at a given time. That process may have parallels with how an investment banker is profiling her use of capital.

As Whitney explained, “So much of what we wanted was to get closer to our user, to our subscriber, to understand them better. We wanted to get very intimate with them in terms of what they wanted out of analytics, because we didn’t want to build for just one segment of the economy.”

As a result, IBM can see how distinct businesses overlap, compare and contrast various cohorts, and make vastly more informed decisions about product investments. Watson Analytics’ most popular processes are being reviewed and streamlined to make the product more efficient.

The tool could also be viewed as an element of the broader corporate imperative around cognitive, as IBM seeks to help its business partners transition to a recurring revenue-based economy with cloud-based services and embedded solutions.

“It can be quite difficult for them operationally to change their business model – everything from how they go to market, how they attract new customers, how they engage with new customers, and how they pay their sales force,” said IBM Vice President Michele Stern recently.

In other words, much like GE and dozens of other industrial giants, IBM is turning itself into a service.

“The opportunity is there to embed IBM technology, hardware and software into a business partner solution, and then to sell that either as a white label with their name on it or with a label powered by IBM,” Stern said.

In a recent interview, the author and futurist, Kevin Kelly, explained that AI will eventually become an industrial commodity, like electricity: “I think that AI will be as fundamental as the invention of printing, or the Industrial Revolution. It will be a utility, like electricity, that you can purchase as much or as little as you want. You’re not going to generate it, you’re going to buy it. So I think the fundamental opportunity right now is to take something, add AI to it, and you’ll have an entirely new product and business.”

With the help of Zuora’s subscription management platform, which allows users to access Watson Analytics through one of three simple rate plans, IBM is executing that vision today in very real and tangible terms.