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Cognitive for Everyone: IBM's Open Approach to Watson

"What will you do with Watson?" That's the question IBM asks in one of its video ads for its artificial intelligence, analytic powerhouse of a solution, as one use case after use case flashes by. Clearly, it suggests, the possibilities are endless.

Watson can be a hard thing to nail down. "Virtual assistant" is too limiting a description, as is "analytics engine" -- although Watson offers both capabilities. IBM describes Watson as a cognitive technology that can think like a human, enabling the analysis and interpretation of unstructured text, image, audio, and video data. Watson is capable of providing personalized recommendations through analysis of a user's personality, emotion, and tone, and leverages machine learning to make apps and systems smarter. And, Watson can improve interactions through the use of intelligent chat bots, IBM says.

IBM held its World of Watson event this week in Las Vegas, drawing upwards of 20,000 attendees to engage in more than 1,500 business and technical sessions around data insights and cognitive computing. I did my best to follow the news coming out of the event, remotely listening in on a few keynotes, reading up on press releases, and watching streamed interviews conducted by theCUBE. The announcements were plentiful, so stick with me as I break down the biggest news coming out of the event.

"The collaboration buzz is back at IBM," No Jitter editor Beth Schultz wrote back in July following two developments: IBM's appointment of analytics veteran Inhi Cho Suh to GM of Collaboration Solutions, and a partnership that would see the integration of IBM's Connections and Verse platforms with Cisco's Spark and WebEx solutions, all infused with the intelligence that IBM's Watson advanced analytics platform delivers. Well if things were buzzing in July, perhaps now a full roar is coming out of Vegas, with Tuesday's announcement of new categories of Watson solutions for professionals. These include cognitive solutions for marketers, driving improved audience targeting, sales conversions, and brand loyalty through Watson Customer Experience Analytics and the Watson Content Hub. For e-commerce businesses, there's the Watson Order Optimizer to help businesses fulfill orders and make use of all channels. For supply chain professionals, there's Watson Supply Chain Insights, which spots trends in data around supply chain patterns, alerting businesses to disruptions and time delays. There's even Watson Talent offerings for improving the delivery of HR services, recruitment, and talent retainment.

But of most interest in our enterprise collaboration space is Watson Work, which is a set of "cognitive powered" productivity applications and services that better enable employees to connect to the right experts, make sure they are using the most relevant content and insights, and work together in a simple way, as IBM described in a press release. Watson Work comprises Watson Workspace, which learns an individual's work and interactions habits and consolidates conversations from a variety of communications channels into one space. Through a feature called Moments, Watson's cognitive capabilities then highlight urgent action items, automates tasks, and provides context to users so they understand why certain posts and action items are the most important, IBM said.

Also part of the Watson Work offering is Watson Work Services, a set of cognitive APIs developers can leverage to add cognitive capabilities to products.

"We're creating a brand-new category around Watson Work, ... a family of IBM applications and partner applications where we're going to infuse Watson into understanding you -- personally, contextually -- so it saves you time, it saves you energy, and you can focus on the things you want to get done and the more meaningful conversations that you have in your environment," Suh said in an onsite interview with theCUBE.

Workspace is pre-beta at the moment, but in releasing preview this week IBM officially signals its entry into the already flooded team collaboration market. Whether the cognitive computing capabilities serve to distinguish IBM in this space remains to be seen.

IBM announced or showcased many big-name partnerships announced at World of Watson. They include:

This is where cognitive computing can come into play. An AI-fueled chat bot, for example, could filter those interactions and serve up just the 25 to 30% of messages requiring immediate attention, Zweig said.

The partnership also involves IBM building a Watson-enabled Slack chatbot aimed at helping IT and network operations teams more efficiently identify and resolve network issues, and it is developing a Botkit Watson middleware plugin for enabling the Watson Conversation service to talk to Slack and other messaging channels. This, and the intent to release application starter kits for the Slack platform, are aimed at making it easier for developers to integrate Watson services into Slack. Toward that end, IBM said internal marketing, design, and engineering groups have even begun using Slack for their work in creating new cognitive solutions for the Slack platform, and have promised to make lessons learned available as resources for developers.

"We want Slack to become better and smarter the more you use it," said Slack co-founder and CEO Stewart Butterfield, in a prepared statement. "We want to make it simpler for people to keep up with the most important conversations and to supercharge their ability to find fast answers."

Specifically, IBM said it has optimized its Conversation, natural language processing, and other Watson APIs to work with the new iOS 10 speech framework. This enables the apps to support conversational interactions and deliver deeper insights to users.

The announcements go on and on: IBM unveiled Watson cognitive services for its Cloud Video technology, introduced Watson Virtual Agent, a technology for building conversational bots. Outside the enterprise collaboration realm, it announced that is has partnered with OnStar to provide a cognitive mobility platform aimed at improving the driving experience, and it revealed that it would be expanding its partnership with Teva Pharmaceuticals to foster drug development and chronic disease management through the application of Watson. IBM Watson Education introduced a new alliance with Pearson to open up cognitive capabilities to college students and professors. IBM-owned The Weather Channel unveiled its new cognitive weather bot for Facebook Messenger, powered by... you guessed it, Watson. And finally, it announced its IBM Watson Data Platform, a "data ingestion engine" for data professionals.

Suh helped sum up all the news and IBM's strategic direction in her theCUBE interview: "... we've applied analytics to enterprise structured data ... [and] we're starting to put analytics on data outside the enterprise -- aka Twitter, weather. Now what I consider as almost the last mile is putting analytics on people and people interaction."

Because of the "dark data" involved, that's the "last hard piece," she added. "It's a cognition load that kind of impedes faster ways in which people can connect and work. And so being able to ... [infuse] cognitive to everyday email, everyday social networks, to blogs, to documents, to creations, new media content like video ... is really exciting."

So exciting, in fact, that Suh said she fundamentally believes that Watson is something IBM needs to share with everybody. "It's not just an IBM thing."

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