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FOSE Conference: IBM’s Watson

This morning I had the chance to listen to David McQueeney. McQueeney is the Vice President of Software at IBM. David spoke about the history of Watson and the potential uses of the technology. McQueeney gave a great presentation and there are a lot of great lessons that government can learn from how Watson was developed and the new technology.

History of Watson and lessons for Government

McQueeney identified numerous technological challenges to building Watson and provided insights how the project turned from an idea in a Poughkeepsie bar, into a research project that lasted over four years with nearly twenty research team members.

There were many technological barriers the research team needed to overcome. The research team had to think of all the different ways the human brain interprets a question, processes the information, and then develops an answer with certainty. Some of the techology challenges McQueeney points out were breaking down rhymes within a question, understanding a missing link in a question, connecting seemingly abstract concepts and making a decision in real time. One interesting thing I did not know about Watson is that Watson was not hooked up to the internet during Jeapordy.

At first, the project was hit with some resistance from IBM Executives. McQueeney mentioned that the research team leader, David Ferrucci, was a supporter from the beginning and decided to continue to push for the project. Eventually, Ferrucci helped lead the charge for IBM to take on the project and was named the leader of the research team.

McQueeney explained how Ferrucci laid the ground rules early how the research group would operate. Ferrucci immediately got the group focused on a common vision, asked researchers to set aside working towards personal publications and that decisions would be made on the basis of which ideas perform at the highest level to meet a given task, not based on seniority or egos – simply performance. During the presentation, I began thinking about lessons for Government. The first one that came to mind was based upon leadership, knowing that government does not have all the answers and understanding that a more collaborative style governance is needed to address the complex challenges we face.

Another lesson from Watson’s history was the idea of taking a risk. What if Watson failed? What if Watson was a complete waste of funds and an embarrasment for IBM, viewed by millions across the nation? The risks in the public and private sector are inherently different, but by taking a calculated risk and carefully considering options, IBM developed one of the most innovative computer systems in history.

Watson’s Applications for Government

McQueeney said that part of the goal of Watson was to assist physicians with differential diagnosis. The idea is that if a physcian is treating a patient, the physician can tell Watson the patients symptoms and Watson can report back what the ailment is.

Watson is also being used in enterprise knowledge and national security. So will Watson someday be in the President’s Cabinet providing insights to critical national security decisions? Will Watson be telling your physician what to prescribe for your cold? It’s an interesting notion to think about and a truly remarkable technology.

How do you feel about Watson? What are some of the potential ramifications on decision making with Watson?

The IBM Analytics Solution Center (ASC) is part of a network of global analytics centers that provides clients with the analytics expertise to help them solve their toughest business problems. Check out their Analytics to Outcomes group on GovLoop.

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