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Watson, IBM’s ‘Jeopardy!’ Champ, Gets Its Own Business Division

By Scott Neuman on January 9th, 2014

Ever wonder what happens to all those Jeopardy! champions once they leave the stage? Watson, an IBM supercomputer, got its own business division.

You might recall that Watson, named after longtime CEO Thomas J. Watson, crushed its human opponents on the popular television game show back in February 2011.

The Associated Press wrote at the time:

“Watson earned $77,147, versus $24,000 for Ken Jennings and $21,600 for Brad Rutter. Jennings took it in stride writing ‘I for one welcome our new computer overlords’ alongside his correct Final Jeopardy answer.”

Flush with victory, IBM hinted at Watson’s future — possibly sifting through virtual stacks of medical journals to help doctors diagnose tough cases, or maybe to “help make Internet searches far more like a conversation than the hit-or-miss things they are now,” the AP wrote, coincidentally just a few months before Apple introduced Siri.

But $77,000 in game show winnings, plus a $1 million special challenge prize, isn’t much of a return on the estimated tens of millions of dollars poured into Watson, which (who?) was specially developed for its appearance on Jeopardy!

Enter Watson Business Group. It’s what ZDNet describes as IBM’s attempt to leverage its “cognitive computing” heavyweight into commercial success.

At an event in New York on Thursday, current IBM CEO Ginni Rometty and executives are expected to outline their strategy, ZDnet writes:

“Big Blue said it will invest $1 billion into the Watson division including $100 million to fund startups developing cognitive apps.

“IBM said the Watson division, based in New York City’s Silicon Alley, will have about 2,000 employees focused on software, services, research, experts and sales people.”

As part of Thursday’s announcement, The Wall Street Journal reports, “IBM said it is rolling out two new digital Watson advisers: one helps companies draw insights from mountains of digital data, and the other creates graphical visualizations of data. The company said it would also launch a ‘Digital Life’ service online so consumers can experiment with Watson to, for example, build an app that suggests recipes based on a person’s dietary restrictions.

“Another effort, begun last fall, allows independent software developers to write Watson ‘apps,’ much like those for smartphones and tablets. IBM might take a cut of the developers’ revenue, much as Apple Inc. AAPL -0.59% does with its app store.”

IBM’s Watson commercialization efforts have reportedly struggled and account for only $100 million in revenue over the last three years, according to a transcript obtained by the Journal.

In other words, transforming Watson’s Jeopardy! prowess into cold, hard cash hasn’t been easy. We suspect some of the game show’s human competitors have had similar difficulties.

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