Why your business needs a Watson

01 May 2015 / jgelfand

Wanted: Business analyst. Must be able to support decision-making with sound research. Fast learners will be considered favourably

In the future, this positions vacant ad could well be filled by the descendants of IBM’s Watson, a computer that has been taught to learn cognitively, a process that has already seen the system beat two US Jeopardy! champions and embark on a career in healthcare support.

What exactly does Watson do? It answers questions using a combination of language processing and information retrieval. You give it the answers and then it learns how you ask questions and the different ways to ask it. As an application, Watson fits into any environment where open domain questioning requires support from data to make decisions.

In the healthcare sector, Watson assists medical professionals by matching a query about symptoms with information comprising the patient’s medical history as well as treatment guidelines, electronic medical records, notes made by medical professionals and research material, including clinical studies and journal articles. It will then offer hypotheses and recommendations for treatment, listed according to its confidence. It’s like having the team from House on hand with much shorter, less interesting episodes.

What this spells for business is a change in the way we handle information and a shift in how we make decisions and devise solutions.


When the term ‘information superhighway’ was first coined, little did our technology forebears know the ‘highway’ would grow to look more like the rings around Saturn. A cognitive learning platform like Watson will help us make sense of data and information in the way a human mind would, rather than simply being storage.

Being able to retrieve information and apply reasoning through a cognitive learning artificial intelligence means instead of having search tools, we will have find tools. What does that look like? Instead of having a menu at a restaurant that prompts you to look for something you might want to eat, you would instead input what you feel like eating and, based on the ingredients the kitchen has and the skill of the chef, plus any dietary requirements, you get a served a dish that matches your needs.

Most chefs, when creating new recipes, understand a flavour profile of how two foods complement or enhance each other. Top chefs can understand three. Chef Watson, with knowledge of the chemical compounds of all the ingredients and with access to a worldwide database of recipes, has an almost infinite number of ways to combine ingredients and create new recipes and can even rank these on how ‘surprising’ they are. When asked to create a new rib recipe, for example, it came up with fennel-spiced ribs with tangy apple-mustard barbecue sauce.

This not only frees us from the shackles of too much information—gone are the days when you need to memorise how different foods affect the palate—it offers the possibility of new ways of combining information and retains serendipity. Watson just suggests the ingredients; the cheffing is all about what you do with them.


Imagine what a platform like Watson could do for a business. Not only could it pull together data and find surprising correlations between datasets by breaking down silos, it would assist with providing support for decisions that need to be made quickly.

Entrepreneurs are born from a place where frustration turns into ‘what if?’ and having a ‘Watson’ would be the perfect way to encourage creativity. Firstly it would eliminate the waste of human resources that often goes into trawling information and redirect their brainpower towards devising solutions. Very few millennials remember their multiplication tables but can develop complex software, precisely because they aren’t required to adhere to rote learning.

Secondly, it frees us from the tyranny of having to deal with information in a precise way to get the precise answer we’re after. Being able to explore what we know in a cognitive learning ecosystem will lead to connections and perspectives we never thought of before—perhaps new problems to solve or new solutions to try, as well as other applications of this tool that we haven’t even dreamed of yet. Your business is a robot classroom of the future, but don’t be scared: be grateful they’re on your side.

Tristan Sternson is the managing director and founder of InfoReady, a leading Australian data and analytics service and solution provider.

Previous  > >  Next