Does Watson Know the Answer to IBM’s Woes?

IBM is betting that research on more human-like artificial intelligence will help it turn things around.

By Will Knight on November 5, 2014

As cheap cloud computing services erode IBM’s traditional hardware business with alarming speed, the company finds itself facing an uncertain future. If only there were some clever machine it could turn to for advice.

Appropriately enough that’s what a large part of IBM’s research division is trying to create, by building on the research effort that led to Watson, the computer that won in the game show Jeopardy! in 2011. The hope is that this effort will lead to software and hardware that can answer complex questions by looking through vast amounts of information containing subtle and disparate clues.

“We’re betting billons of dollars, and a third of this division now is working on it,” John Kelly, director of IBM Research, said of cognitive computing, a term the company uses to refer to artificial intelligence techniques related to Watson.

The stakes are looking higher by the day. IBM has delivered a string of disappointing quarters, and announced recently that it would take a multibillion-dollar hit to offload its struggling chip business.

The company’s vast research department is already big part of the turnaround plan. Earlier this year the division was reorganized to ramp up efforts related to cognitive computing. The push began with the development of the original Watson, but has expanded to include other areas of software and hardware research aimed at helping machines provide useful insights from huge quantities of often-messy data. The research efforts are far-ranging, and include software that can suggest new recipes by analyzing thousands of ingredients and popular meals, and electronic components, known as neurosynaptic chips, that have features modeled on the workings of biological brains and are more efficient at processing sensory information.

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