International Business Machines researchers spent four years developing Watson, the computer smart enough to beat the champions of the quiz show "Jeopardy!" Now they're trying to figure out how to get those capabilities into the phone in your pocket.
Bernie Meyerson, IBM's vice president of innovation, envisions a voice-activated Watson that answers questions, like a supercharged version of Apple's Siri personal assistant.
Finding additional uses for Watson is part of IBM's plan to tap new markets and boost revenue from business analytics to $16 billion by 2015. After mastering history and pop culture for its "Jeopardy!" appearance, the system is crunching financial information for Citigroup and cancer data for WellPoint. The next version, dubbed Watson 2.0, would be energy-efficient enough to work on smartphones and tablets.
IBM expects to generate billions in sales by putting Watson to work in finance, health care, telecommunications and other areas.
The challenge for IBM is overcoming the technical obstacles to making Watson a hand-held product, and figuring out how to price and deliver it. Watson's nerve center is 10 racks of IBM Power750 servers running in Yorktown Heights, N.Y., that have the same processing power as 6,000 desktop computers. Even though most of the computations occur at the data center, a Watson smartphone application would still consume too much power for it to be practical today.
Another hurdle: It takes awhile for Watson to do the "machine learning" necessary to become a reliable assistant in an area. Watson's deal with WellPoint was announced in September of last year, and the system won't master the field of oncology until at least late 2013.
Researchers also need to add voice and image recognition to the service so that it can respond to real-world input, said Katharine Frase, vice president of industry research at Armonk, N.Y.-based IBM.
IBM's path to the mobile-assistant market contrasts with Apple's. For one, IBM is focused on corporate customers, while Apple is targeting anyone who buys its phones.
Apple made Siri the focus of its marketing of the iPhone 4S, which debuted last year.
Trudy Muller, a spokeswoman for Cupertino, Calif.-based Apple, said customers are happy with Siri and the company will further improve the software in the next version of the iOS operating system.
"With new features coming this fall in iOS 6, Siri will help you get even more done with just your voice," she said.
With Watson, IBM aims to tackle more complex questions. The program will be able to understand oncology well enough to advise doctors on diagnosis and prescriptions, said Martin Kohn, IBM's chief medical scientist. One iPad application for Watson - a health-care program developed with a Columbia University professor - is being used to demonstrate its medical capabilities for prospective IBM customers.