Our partner and colleague Jon Klein of The Topline Strategy Group explores one very public example.
Earlier last month, Watson, a computer built by IBM, faced off against Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter, the two greatest Jeopardy players of all time and trounced them. Or was it rigged?
First we'll look at the Watson backstory. When the project was approved, management explicitly required that the technology could be commercialized. Back in the 1990's IBM invested heavily in a project that resulted in Deep Blue, a chess playing phenomenon that went on to beat the best human player, Gary Kasparov. While the company won bragging rights, it turned out that there were no commercial applications for the technology. IBM didn't want to make that mistake again. When Watson was approved, it was done so with the belief that its question answering technology could be applied to many fields including healthcare, as an expert diagnostic assistant to help doctors, and retail, as a next-generation recommendation engine.
Over the years, I have seen many mind blowing demonstrations of gee-whiz technologies that never achieved commercial success. Each time investors got frustrated with the progress of the business, the management team would cook up another demo which promised that a breakthrough was just around the corner...and in the process, relieved the investors of several million more dollars. The most egregious cases are the ones that have created some of the most high profile public flops (think the Apple Newton). My analysis is that IBM execs just witnessed one of the best gee-whiz demos of all time and before they sink in any more money, they should have independent market and technology due diligence performed on Watson’s commercial prospects. The critical question they need to answer is: Can this generalized question-answering technology actually provide enough value over the purpose-build expert systems that already exist in fields like medicine to justify its cost? It’s a question that the Watson team cannot answer. They have too much personally invested in the program to come up with any answer other than ‘Yes’.
Look for our next blog coming soon where we'll get to know how the game was rigged in Watson's favor.
This article was contributed by Jon Klein. Jon is the founder and general partner of The Topline Strategy Group, a strategy consulting and market research firm specializing in emerging technologies. Jon brings a unique blend of strategy consulting and hands on operating experience to The Topline Strategy Group and works closely with Semaphore on a variety of engagements.