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Elementary, my dear Watson: Better by Design meets IBM’s cognitive supercomputer in NY

Thankfully Watson has grown and morphed into a technology that could disrupt the medical profession, among others. While there is a long way to go, Watson had just passed his/its medical exams and (while I hope not licensed to practice) has the incredible promise of assisting medical diagnosis on a pretty epic level.

We were shown a live(ish) demo of the diagnosis of a patient. In this case the doctor had missed a core symptom of the patient (rather obvious red-eyes) which Watson then used to make the winning diagnosis. While I could poke holes in IBM’s claim that the difference in diagnosis time was 5.5 days (with the real-world scenario hospitalising the young boy), at age 16 I spent 6 months with an undiagnosed and not insignificant medical issue. I didn’t fit the standard profile for the condition and as a result it didn’t occur to the doctors and remained undiagnosed. I am quite sure this would not happen under Watson’s Kahneman-esque slow-thinking style (see this great book). And then there is the very real application of tracking and monitoring the spread of disease, and the possibility of using this computing power in GP-starved developing nations. The list can of course go on, as can the other uses of Watson’s big (slow, in a good way) brain.

While Watson is pretty cool – and I was keen to hear the sales pitch – what I am most fascinated about is IBM’s possible pivot from consulting services to, as the CEO refers to it, “cognitive computing”. Only last week, amid downward pressure on the stock price did IBM’s Ginni Rometty declare to the market that this was the future of IBM. When I asked our guides about this they excitedly ran off to show us the cover of their internal newsletter which declared this the new wave of IBM. I will not comment on the fact that a literal newspaper was produced to declare this digital vision.

What this fan girl got most excited about, other than the fact that IBM are creating an open platform so I can go and build endless applications on top of Watson, was that as part of that vision they really do seem to want to make this as open source and cloud-accessible as their business model will allow. With the market breathing (fire I think) down their necks the pressure is on them to prove they can transform, which I do think might well make them history’s more adaptable company. Right up there on the re-invention honours board with this fan-girl’s other idol, Madonna. Yeah – I just went there.

Claudia Batten is NZTE’s regional director for North America

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