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July 12, 2011

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If You’re Eating Dinner, It Must Be Watson Calling

By Larry Walsh

Imagine this: You’re sitting down to dinner – a pot roast with potatoes and mixed vegetables. You’re having the first conversation with your family all day, hearing what happened with your children in school and the challenges of your wife’s job. And then, in mid-conversation, the phone rings. It’s a telemarketer asking if you’re satisfied with your cable service.

The person is pleasant enough. Despite your protest, the telemarketer continues to tout the benefits of his service. He states how easily they can get you enrolled and converted off your existing provider. He even offers to sweeten the deal by offering the first two month’s free.

The conversation is no different than any other telemarketer call, except one important point. The caller is none other than Watson, the artificial intelligence system developed by IBM.

Reports indicate IBM is preparing to use Watson as an automated system for answering sales questions about its products and services. Conceivably, Watson could be exported to companies who use inbound and outbound call centers for customer service, technical support and telemarketing sales.

Watson is a marvel of software and hardware engineering. Unlike other automated voice recognition systems, Watson is not menu driven or confined by instructional parameters. It can interact with people with natural expressions. This means it can recognize slang and colloquialisms, as well as word homographs and synonyms.

What really makes Watson unique is of differential logic to determine responses. Rather than picking a response from a pre-selected menu of options as many existing automated phone systems use, Watson scans through its databases at lightning speed to identify possible answers and select the most probable response.

IBM demonstrate the power of Watson earlier this year on the game show Jeopardy!, in which it easily defeated all-time champion Ken Jennings. It was an impressive display of artificial intelligence. The question that Watson left on the Jeopardy! stage was what is the practical applications of this technology.

Soon after the Jeopardy! show, IBM announced a partnership with Nuance, the developer of Dragon Naturally Speaking voice recognition software, to develop applications based on Watson for health care use. Other uses could be for scientific research, differential financial analysis, advanced simulations, and command and control of robotic space probes. The potential uses are endless.

And, it appears, the first true commercial application of Watson will be telemarketing, a task that could render an entire profession obsolete. If proven viable, Watson could replace entire, expensive call centers around the world. But it will be some years before that happens given Watson’s price tag – the base unit built for Jeopardy! cost nearly $32 million.

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1 Comment
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