If you ask IBM about its plans for a given business opportunity—health care, financial services, pharma, even sports coverage—the answer will likely center on Watson, IBM’s take on artificial intelligence, or cognitive computing, in IBM parlance.
Since beating human champions in Jeopardy six years ago, Watson has been very long on promise and generated untold numbers of headlines. As for real results, as in profit and real new business? It’s unclear as IBM (IBM) chief executive Ginni Rometty has said the company does not break that out in order to protect this crucial but nascent business.
Over the past year, critics have voiced skepticism about Watson’s real-world prospects especially as AI competitors—from Google (GOOG) to Microsoft (MSFT)—have brought their AI software offerings to market.
The perception now is that Watson has not met lofty expectations.
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The most strident take down came last month when Chamath Palihapitiya, chief executive and founder Social Capital, a VC fund, told CNBC that “Watson is a joke, just to be completely honest.”
“The companies that are advancing machine learning and AI don’t brand it with some nominally specious name that’s named after a Sherlock Holmes character,” he added.
To be fair, while IBM (IBM) did set the table for this broad brush branding, other tech companies have taken up the cause with a vengeance, sprinkling the term “AI” like fairy dust on every bit of their software. IBM has Watson, while Salesforce (CRM) has Einstein, for example.
Early on, some large companies that were interested in Watson as portrayed by IBM, privately noted later that while they saw great promise, Watson in reality, was a set of technologies that needed to be stitched together at their site. That meant buying Watson—and then preparing data for Watson—was more a big integration project than a product purchase.
That’s good for IBM’s services business, but these companies were not interested in taking on a such a task. IBM duly set up business units centered on productizing the technology, as David Kenny, who was then general manager of the Watson business noted to Fortune last year. (Kenny is now senior vice president in charge of both Watson and IBM Cloud Platform.)
Related: IBM Watson Is All About IBM Infrastructure
A new article in MIT’s Tech Review has an interesting take on all of this. While it notes setbacks for Watson in health care—notably M.D. Anderson Cancer Center’s decision to walk away from Watson earlier this year—the short take is: “Don’t throw out the baby with the bath water.”
The author argues Watson suffers from the IBM’s over-the-top marketing, but the tech is still valuable for health care applications.
Related: IBM Watson Health Unit Debuts
According to Tech Review, most of the issues with Watson have nothing to do with a technological problem. They are more about the availability and quality of data for Watson to process.
It still seems likely that Watson Health will be a leader in applying AI to health care’s woes. If Watson has not, as of yet, accomplished a great deal along those lines, one big reason is that it needs certain types of data to be “trained.” And in many cases such data is in very short supply or difficult to access. That’s not a problem unique to Watson. It’s a catch-22 facing the entire field of machine learning for health care.
IBM, it notes, has been aggressive in filling this data gap. It paid $2.6 billion to buy Truven Health, and its data trove, last year, for example.
In response to the article, an IBM spokeswoman told Fortune that the Watson AI platform has been trained on six types of cancer to date, with plans to add eight more types this year. And she noted its use many top life sciences companies, along with companies building Internet of Things applications, retailers and financial services firms.
“It would be hard for any serious person to conclude that Watson is not working on some of the most significant issues in society today—and making progress,” she said via email.
The problem with AI as subject matter is that the companies behind it and journalists covering it (guilty here) fall into the trap of extolling the technology as the greatest (or scariest) ever. And then the inevitable reality is just, well, underwhelming.
Related: IBM Watson: Not So Elementary
My former colleague Derrick Harris has great take on all this in his Architecht newsletter. Read the whole thing, but in his view, the biggest issue for business people is falling for the hype without understanding what’s happening in the technology right now. He thinks the technologists in the trenches have a good handle on that. Too bad the marketers and PR maestros at their companies choose not to reflect it.