IBM launches business unit to make Watson a moneymaker

The newly formed Watson Business Group will be based in New York and offer cognitive computing systems and services for industry

IBM continues to commercialize its Watson-branded cognitive computing technology, setting up a new Watson business unit and unveiling two new Watson-derived services.

IBM's new division, called the Watson Business Group, will develop and run cloud-based cognitive applications and services on behalf of enterprise users. IBM will invest US$1 billion in the group, including $100 million earmarked to invest in startup companies building applications that run on the Watson Developer cloud.

Michael Rhodin, who most recently served as a senior vice president for the IBM Software Solutions Group, will head up the Watson Group. The new business unit will be staffed by 2,000 IBM professionals and will be headquartered at 51 Astor Place in Manhattan, in New York's "Silicon Alley" district.

IBM first developed Watson as a research project to compete against humans on the game show "Jeopardy," answering obscure trivia questions across a wide range of topics. Watson can formulate answers to specific questions using a range of source materials in various formats, honing its answers by, in effect, learning how to formulate the best responses through trial and error. This approach is known as cognitive computing because it involves a computer emulating a biological brain to learn about its environment.

Watson won its three-day round of "Jeopardy" in 2011, and IBM has since worked to commercialize Watson technologies, with varying degrees of success.

The company has set up Watson as a cloud service that enterprises can use to tackle difficult problems. The company has set up Watson-like systems to serve as virtual assistants to help doctors diagnose medical conditions and to help retail businesses more effectively interact with their customers. Both the media analysis company Nielsen and Royal Bank of Canada use Watson services.

Last year, the company also launched the Watson Ecosystem, a development platform that allows third-party businesses and entrepreneurs to build their own cognitive computing applications.

The Watson Group's headquarters will provide labs where clients can learn about and test cognitive computing systems. It will also offer workshops and seminars on the benefits of cognitive computing.

The business unit will consist of four groups. One of those, called the IBM Watson Innovation group, will concentrate on core research and development.

The IBM Watson Transformation team will focus on business development, looking for specific markets that would be a good fit for cognitive computing. The IBM Watson Implementation team will be in charge of deploying Watson services and systems on behalf of IBM clients. And the IBM Watson Engagement team will handle sales and marketing.

In addition to launching the new business unit, IBM unveiled a number of new Watson-related services.

One offering, the IBM Watson Discovery Advisor, is an advanced search service designed for educational institutions and pharmaceutical and publishing companies.

The other new service is IBM Watson Analytics Advisor, which can field natural-language questions from users and look for possible answers in large data repositories located in the cloud.

Joab Jackson covers enterprise software and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Follow Joab on Twitter at @Joab_Jackson. Joab's e-mail address is Joab_Jackson@idg.com

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