IBM is prepping its Watson supercomputer technology to be utilized by third-party developers for the first time via a Watson cloud service called the “Watson Ecosystem.” Courtesy /

Watson, the name for the IBM supercomputer best known for crushing “Jeopardy!” contestants, is prepping its “cognitive computing” technology to be utilized by third-party developers for the first time via a Watson cloud service called the “Watson Ecosystem.”

The Watson cloud service will release with a development tool kit, access to the application programming interface (API) of Watson, an application marketplace, and educational material about IBM’s supercomputer. IBM says the Watson API should look familiar to any programmers familiar with the RESTful APIs, but details like pricing for the cloud service aren’t set yet. IBM also said it will tap startups to build software for Watson through a number of prominent venture capitalists, though the company refused to name names.

“We’ve been developing, evolving and maturing the technology,” Rob High, an IBM fellow who serves as CTO of Watson, said in an interview with PCWorld. “It’s stable and mature enough to support an ecosystem now. We’ve become convinced there’s something very special here and we shouldn’t be holding it back.”

Despite the Watson ecosystem being in its infancy, IBM has already opened up pilots of Watson for a number of businesses, including Elance, Healthline and Fluid Inc. to improve user interactions and satisfaction. But with Watson’s ability to consume and analyze data and create highly personalized answers, what else can Watson do?

How Can Watson Improve Business?

In a 2011 interview with Dr. David Ferrucci, who formally headed the Semantic Analysis and Integration Department at IBM’s T.J. Watson’s Research Center and helped lead the Watson project starting in 2007, Ferrucci told Inc. Magazine’s Christine Lagorio-Chafkin how Watson could help small businesses.

“Getting smarter with technology that analyzes and understands natural language content is the motivation,” Ferrucci said. “I think there's huge business opportunities for small business because when you think about the whole knowledge management problem, it all hinges on figuring out how to do that better.

“You need this ecosystem of developers who can go in there and understand how best to apply Watson, how to build the right interfaces, how to customize and optimize the capability to solve the target company's information needs,” he added. “I think it's going to open a door to having companies look at the potential—there's traditional databases on one side, there's keyword search on the other—but right in this middle, in this sweet spot where people are struggling to get greater precision to get greater breadth in answering information needs, the engine has been so hard to replicate, and that's only part of it. If a small business can figure out how to bridge the gap, I think there's a huge opportunity there.”

But with its vast artificial intelligence and its ability to adapt its hyperfast cognitive systems to sense, analyze and communicate with a great deal of accuracy and specificity, how can the Watson cloud ecosystem be a boon to small businesses? Here are three potential uses for IBM’s supercomputer cloud service from Watson.

1. Watson the Shopping Companion. Users can use Watson to search the Web for all their shopping needs, and it’d be nice if Watson could keep track of the things you want to buy in the future – similar to the way iOS users use the Reminders app, which activates at certain times or even locations to let its user know what’s available nearby. On a mobile device with location services on, Watson could track your current location and give you competitive rates for products you want across several outlets in your vicinity, and alert you if you’re about to pass a certain store that has what you’re looking for. In other words, if you’re in a shopping mall, and several stores have the item you want, Watson could automatically find the lowest available price for whatever you’re looking for (once you set your location parameters) and direct you there.

2. Watson the Journalist. Considering Watson’s penchant for communication, IBM’s supercomputer cloud service could be a useful news service. By scanning digital media content from the Internet, Watson could be a useful companion to help users get the news they want and the news they need. Watson could tap into news applications or aggregators like Flipboard or Zite and read aloud news bits its user is asking about, but Watson would hopefully be able to remember its user’s preferences and, over time, begin automatically pulling stories it knows the user will probably be interested in. For instance, if a user constantly asks Watson for news about weather and typhoons, Watson could scan the news constantly and recommend certain news stories related to science and climate change – anything relevant to the user’s interests.

3. Watson the Nurse. Watson is already a medical diagnostician, but with the new Watson cloud API and Watson’s evidence-based learning, medical mobile applications could possibly become personal, digital nurses that follow their users around everywhere. If WebMD could integrate Watson into its symptom checker, assuming Watson could hold a conversation and remember prior details, users could tell Watson about all of their symptoms, and Watson could return lists of possible conditions and medical solutions, be it home cures or recommending a doctor visit. Furthermore, Watson could search deeper through WebMD to recommend certain drugs or home treatments, or even locate and contact a nearby pharmacy to go pick up medicine. Watson as a digital nurse symptom checker could have unlimited potential in the medical industry. If Watson were able to respond to each answer uniquely, further the conversation with the user by asking for clarification, and provide a clear and thorough medical history of its user when asked, doctors and nurses could save thousands of hours of asking patients the same list of prying medical history questions. There are not enough doctors to do the work that needs to be done, but Watson could potentially change that with its API.

Though Watson would be an excellent personal assistant in these three ways, IBM says the Watson cloud ecosystem can do so much more with relation to customer service, health care, finance and more:

- Diagnosis and action - Assistance for knowledge workers dealing with a single case for a single client to pinpoint a condition from among many possibilities and make resultant decisions

- Contact center support - Personalized self-service experience for clients by dynamically developing personal profiles from unstructured data

- Research and discovery - Identification of rare studies and information sources while building a case for original research

- Process optimization - Identification of areas for improvement in business processes by analyzing unstructured data that documents and describes process steps and output

- Fraud and risk management - Identification of early signs of fraud and management of risk in order to lower overall liability and costs of doing business

What else would you like to see Watson do? If you’re an app developer, do you plan to incorporate IBM’s Watson into your software? Visit IBM to learn more about the Watson Ecosystem and let us know your thoughts in the comments section below.

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