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IBM looks to outsmart Big Data competition with Watson

Thor Olavsrud | Jan. 15, 2014
IBM is seeking to jump ahead of the big data technology competition by moving its Watson cognitive supercomputer to the cloud and offering up its capabilities as a set of big data services and a big data application development platform.

Watson and Big Data

It's a bit of commonly accepted wisdom in big data circles that small companies and startups will be the ones to drive big data technology forward and define the shape of the market to come. The large players, like IBM and Oracle, unable to adjust quickly enough to a world changing at breakneck speed, will see bits of their business intelligence market stripped away by smaller, more agile competitors.

The stakes are high: Tranparency Market Research has forecast the global market for big data will grow to $48.3 billion by 2018.

But IBM isn't taking the common wisdom lying down. Last week it announced the new IBM Watson Group business unit at a splashy New York City event as a signal not just of its intention to step up competition in the big data market, but its plan to leapfrog into a leadership position with what it has dubbed a "new era of computing."

In 2011, IBM introduced the world to Watson, a supercomputer that could play the TV game show Jeopardy! and win against human opponents. Not just any opponents either: Watson made mincemeat out of Jeopardy! champions Brad Rutter and Ken Jennings. Rutter holds the record for Jeopardy! winnings while Jennings holds the record for longest Jeopardy! winning streak with 74 straight wins.

"In 2011, we introduced a new era [of computing] to you. It is cognitive," says IBM CEO Ginni Rometty. "It was a new species, if I could call it that. It is taught, not programmed. It gets smarter over time. It makes better judgments over time. Why did we take Watson on? It's built for a world of big data. It has the potential to transform businesses and industries everywhere."

"It is not a super search engine," she adds. "It can find a needle in a haystack, but it also understands the haystack."

What Is Cognitive Computing?
In other words, IBM says cognitive computing systems like Watson are capable of understanding the subtleties, idiosyncrasies, idioms and nuance of human language by mimicking how humans reason and process information.

Whereas traditional computing systems are programmed to calculate rapidly and perform deterministic tasks, IBM says cognitive systems analyze information and draw insights from the analysis using probabilistic analytics. And they effectively continuously reprogram themselves based on what they learn from their interactions with data.

"If you take it at its essence, at its core, it's a system that understands natural language," says Michael Rhodin, formerly senior vice president of IBM's Software Solutions Group, who has been tapped to lead the Watson Group. "It reads. When it reads a lot, it adapts and learns. It gets smarter. When you ask it questions, it will generate hypotheses--potential answers--with a degree of confidence."


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