Arik Hesseldahl

Recent Posts by Arik Hesseldahl

Customer Service Is Next Job for IBM’s Watson

ibmsauron2Remember Watson? The supercomputer that in an elaborate but interesting publicity stunt beat humanity at the game show “Jeopardy,” and then for a follow-up went on to become a big-shot doctor (sort of), and more recently has started to specialize in cancer research now has yet another new job.

This one doesn’t sound at first quite as interesting, but from the point of view of complex computing tasks, it’s pretty cool. When you think about all the ways that companies have to try to engage with and then make their customers happy and the ways they can do that more effectively, you can probably imagine how a deeply analytical computer might be useful.

IBM calls it the Watson Engagement Advisor; it’s an offshoot its Smarter Commerce initiative. Consider that Watson is smart enough to understand the natural ebb and flow of human language and is designed to answer questions in much the same way humans do, and then quickly sort through a set of known information to determine the best answer, and you’ll realize it’s a fit for customer service.

In that way, Watson can learn over time, and like a good bartender with a lot of regulars, keep track of the unique likes and dislikes of customers and get better at it over time. And that’s important as consumers come to expect to be able to interact with companies pretty much wherever they are and on whatever device they happen to be using at the time: Whether it’s a smart phone, tablet, PC or whatever, they will expect — already are expecting — consistent experiences. Consumers, especially the younger ones, will expect companies to shift with the marketplace as tastes change and evolve.

Watson can be the voice that customers hear when they reach out to the company asking questions. Watson has only gotten smarter since its run on “Jeopardy,” speeding up its performance by 240 percent while slimming down the size of the system required to run it by 75 percent. Already the Nielsen Company and the Royal Bank of Canada are among those kicking the tires in trials.


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I think the NSA has a job to do and we need the NSA. But as (physicist) Robert Oppenheimer said, “When you see something that is technically sweet, you go ahead and do it and argue about what to do about it only after you’ve had your technical success. That is the way it was with the atomic bomb.”

— Phil Zimmerman, PGP inventor and Silent Circle co-founder, in an interview with Om Malik