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Was IBM’s Watson a Breakthrough or Very Cheap and Creative Advertising?

January 8, 2012

Update 1/8/14: Only $15 Million in sales for over $5 billion invested so far as IBM struggles to turn Watson into a business

The worst news in the above link is that companies like Google can do the the same for far less and that Watson doesn’t even work with other IBM technology.

Update: Watson is in the next publicity stunt with Wall Street as sales seem to be lagging.

As we all know, Watson appeared and won on Jeopardy last year.  It was the culmination of years of work and manpower to build a machine that could react faster and be programmed to win a game show.  It was brilliant, but more for promotion than technology sales (as evidenced so far).  There is little doubt that the promotional value was priceless to the IT industry and an easy calculation by IBM to one up the competition.

The two humans were limited to their capacity, whereas Watson was a massive computer with incredible storage and processing capability.  It was programmed specifically for the game, so while not a slam dunk, inevitability wasn’t in much doubt.

I don’t know about you, but as I get older, I forget things and computers don’t.  You can add memory, processors and build it big enough to recall more than any amount of humans.  Jeopardy had two champions,  so it wasn’t really a fair fight.  You ultimately can overpower any certain situation with billions in technology (which is what it cost to win), but throw something like emotion or nuance into a situation and computers are lost.

It was the perfect set up.  Everyone loves to root for the underdog even though the humans really fit that role.  It was accomplished by putting the biggest two winners ever on Jeopardy up against poor Watson.  The truth was that it never was going to be close given the confines of the rules of the game.  In real life, with unforeseen issues, the humans would have a fair chance.  That was never the point of Watson though.

IBM got to promote a research facility, executives, technology and almost a free ticket for three days.  Jeopardy also was a winner with dominant ratings.

I don’t want to debate the possibilities of Watson’s future contribution to technology other than stating that it is another step (and possibly direction)  in data analytics, and it increases the perception of IBM’s lead in this area (thanks to a lot of M&A and some folks that worked without getting enough credit).  It hasn’t been the breakthrough that companies have jumped on like an iPhone, yet billions of dollars have been spent on the same hardware used to build Watson since Jeopardy for traditional IT.  Time will tell.

ADVERTISING

For now, the real victory was exposure.  How much would it cost to purchase 1.5 hours of prime time advertising for a 3 day period where you basically get to change the rules of advertising to where you don’t even have to pretend that an ad agency was involved (also saving millions).  Here is the breakdown of advertising to program, but in reality the big IBM Watson Avatar is a commercial by itself every time Alex said the word Watson.

From a Mad Men point of view (advertising show for those who don’t know) this was a stroke of creative genius that began with winning a chess match against Gary Kasparov, then moving to prime time TV when new exposure was needed.  I saw people glued to their seats and talking about it the next day at a conference.  Nevertheless, it still has all the appearances of a publicity stunt. Unfortunately, it saddled IBM with a 2015 earnings projection claim that Palmisano left Gini Rometty to figure out.  With this economy, it has Sham’s chance of beating Secretariat in the Belmont Stakes to make it.

There will be claims that further technology is Watson legacy and success, but it is not what was intended by the efforts which related to making sure it beat the humans on Jeopardy.  That is supposed to come later.

CURING THE COMMON COLD

It has been suggested that Watson technology is being used to cure cancer.  I like others wish for this as I lost my mother to that disease.  Along with AIDS and the common cold, I have my doubts that we’ll really see this in our lifetime.  By then, trillions will be spent.  Like Global Warming, we could do more by helping to feed the starving and providing help and aid to millions.  This is not what Watson is about though last spring, it was the advertising win of 2010.

So the jury is out on whether it will succeed in medical or some other breakthrough.  For now, it was the promotional prime time win last year.

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