IBM’s A.I. System Watson to Get New West Coast Home

Steve Lohr

IBM's Watson is moving West and widening its ambitions.

The company plans to open a second headquarters for Watson, its artificial-intelligence system, in San Francisco in 2016 and eventually employ several hundred people. IBM's Watson group, set up as a separate business in January 2014, has its East Coast headquarters in downtown Manhattan.

But a series of other announcements from the company expected on Thursday may be more significant. They represent the clearest sign so far of IBM's long-term goal: to make Watson the equivalent of a computing operating system for an emerging class of data-fueled artificial-intelligence applications.

IBM explored paths to commercializing the technology after Watson beat human champions in the quiz show "Jeopardy!" in 2011. At first, the company focused on big demonstration projects with big companies and institutions, especially in medicine and health care.

But the plan has broadened, especially in the last year, to move beyond custom work for major clients to creating a growing collection of services, so that software developers at start-ups and elsewhere can easily use them in applications.

File photo: Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter competed against 'Watson' in the Man V. Machine 'Jeopardy!' competition at the IBM T.J. Watson Research Center in 2011.
Getty Images

On Thursday, IBM will announce new capabilities in Watson services like speech, language understanding, image recognition and sentiment analysis. These humanlike abilities such as seeing, listening and reasoning are those associated with artificial intelligence in computing. IBM calls its approach to A.I. "cognitive computing."

All the major technology companies – Microsoft, Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon and others — are pursuing A.I. applications. Some are ahead of IBM in fields like image recognition.

Yet what is distinctive about IBM, analysts say, is the breadth of its effort to create Watson tools and services as plug-in offerings for a wide range of developers.

"IBM is building out a broad platform for where they think the future of computing is heading," said David Schubmehl, an analyst at IDC.

Mr. Schubmehl compared the IBM playbook in A.I. computing with Microsoft's with Windows in personal computing and Google's with Android OS in mobile. "IBM is trying to do the same thing with Watson," he said, "open up a platform, make it available for others, and democratize the technology."

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IBM says it now has 350 company partners using Watson to make products, with about 50 services on the market. Some 70,000 software developers, IBM says, are using Watson software in some way. Many are in large organizations like ANZ Bank, Johnson & Johnson, the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Mayo Clinic and the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center.

But the event in San Francisco will highlight start-ups using Watson technology. One of them is VineSleuth, whose app provides wine recommendations for consumers based on sensory science and predictive algorithms. The start-up, which is based in Houston, plans to use Watson's language classifier and translation services in kiosks it will put in grocery stores early next year.

A customer, explained Amy Gross, president of VineSleuth, will be able to walk up to a kiosk, tap the screen and say, "I want a wine for under $10 that goes well with salmon." And in reply, the person is shown a list of suggested wines that meet the criteria. If a person registers, the recommendations can become personalized, based on tastes and purchase history.

UnitesUs, an online service for matching job seekers with employers, is using Watson's "personality insights" service. It amounts to automated, online personality assessments. The person looking for a job fills out a brief online application, which asks for permission to mine their public Twitter messages, Facebook posts or other social social-media writing.

The Watson personality-assessment service then generates a report. The service has only been operating for a few months, but it seems to appeal to companies. About 7.5 percent of the thousands of job seekers on UnitesUs have been called for interviews by employers, according to Khashayar Youssefi, the company's chief executive. By contrast, the interview-call rate for major online job services like Monster and Careerbuilder is typically 1 to 4 percent, said Bardia Nikpourian, chief technology officer of UnitesUs, which is based in Irvine, Calif.

Amy Case, head of Case Strategy, a consulting firm, is using Watson to read, sort and assess vast amounts of financial, market and competitive data — from public government information, private sources and online social networks — to suggest growth opportunities for corporate clients.

"It's your judgment in the end," Ms. Case said. "But Watson provides some serious muscle" in winnowing, identifying and ranking possible strategic choices.

The new office in San Francisco, called Watson West, seems to be about both tapping talent and changing minds. IBM already has a presence on Howard Street, where one of its teams works on web and mobile apps for clients, and a large footprint in Silicon Valley, including its Almaden Research Center in San Jose.

Yet Watson West, said Robert High, chief technology officer for the Watson business, is intended to "cater to the heart of the entrepreneurial community here in San Francisco and in Silicon Valley."

"Presence influences points of view," Mr. High said, suggesting that Watson can burnish IBM's image as an innovator. "If you're not there, you're out of sight and out of mind."