IBM launches new Watson Assistant AI for connected enterprises

IBM launches new Watson Assistant AI for connected enterprises

IBM has announced the launch of Watson Assistant, a digital assistant version of its Watson artificial intelligence (AI) and natural language conversation system.

IBM said, “Watson Assistant is the future of information and data sharing between brands, bridging the gap between people and things. […] With Watson Assistant, IBM is connecting everything and everywhere.”

Connected cars, hotel rooms, cafes, retailers, and other smart applications are all being developed around the AI assistant, which will remember users’ preferences and be able to manage their diaries and likes, and be able to hold conversations with them.

Elementary beginnings

Watson was initially developed as a question answering system to compete on US game show Jeopardy!, which it did successfully in 2011, winning a $1 million prize against human opponents. It was subsequently launched as a cloud service, and has since become core to IBM’s reinvention as an enterprise cognitive services provider, with rising numbers of business applications being developed for the platform.

Launched today, the new Watson Assistant is aimed at IBM’s enterprise partners, rather than as a direct-to-consumer play. This differentiates IBM in a space that is already crowded with chattering assistants, such as Siri, Alex, Cortana, and Google’s Assistant technology.

The idea is that partner companies can use Watson to create personalised, engaging experiences for consumers, which “securely bring together data on all of the places and ‘things’ that they visit and interact with daily”, said IBM.

Via new Watson Assistant powered services, consumers’ daily preferences can be “shared securely between their vehicle, their favourite hotel, their local coffee shop, and more, giving consumers control over their data – and over how and where it is shared”.

IBM itself shared an example of a Watson Assistant experience:

“A traveler’s flight is delayed, but she doesn’t need to alert her hotel or the car rental company, because the reservations are updated automatically. When she finally lands, she’s automatically checked into her hotel and her preferred rental car is not only ready, it has her destination preprogrammed along with suggestions about where she can stop at her favourite barista cafe brand for a latte en route.

“Nearing the hotel, the car signals her arrival to the hotel. Her room updates with her preferences for music, temperature, and lighting, and her smartphone, calendar, and email synch with the in-room wall dashboard for alerts and updates, as requested.

“She walks straight past the front desk and up to her room, uses an electronic key on her phone to enter, and within minutes, she is ready to begin her afternoon meetings. The whole experience was automatic, seamless, and above all, personalised to her preferences.”

Partner brands

The enterprise and cognitive services giant is teaming with a range of partner brands to offer this kind of bespoke Watson application. Launch partners include Harman, Munich Airport, Motel One, Chameleon Technology, Kaon, AirWire, Royal Bank of Scotland, and Autodesk.

Chameleon Technology’s I-VIE energy conservation assistant is based on Watson, and the company’s video serves as a better introduction to the types of available application than IBM’s own partner-focused promo.

Another launch partner, Harman has integrated a number of Watson use cases into a Maserati concept car that reveals how AI-based interactive dashboards will be personalised to individual drivers in the future, according to IBM.

Via the technology, different drivers would experience a different version of exactly the same car via their stored preferences, and Watson Assistant would remember each different conversation.

Watson Assistant – Harman Maserati (Photo Alan Rosenberg for IBM)

IBM explained this particular application with another story: “You’re in your car on the way home from work and need to stop for a quick grocery trip. The problem? You’re not sure what to make for dinner.

“Because of partnerships that automakers have with grocery chains, Watson Assistant can engage in an exploratory conversation with you while helping you avoid the developing traffic that lies ahead: “Do you have green peppers and chicken?” “Yes?” “Then, how about a simple chicken stir fry.” “OK.” “Then, all you need to get from grocery story is some onions.”

According to IBM, Watson Assistant services like these will “empower organisations to get to know their customers’ individual preferences”, wherever they happen to be in the world.

Natural language conversations between people and Watson Assistant will simply pick up wherever they left off, regardless of the person’s location. In other words, wherever the person is and Watson services are embedded, the system will recognise that person and resume the conversation.

But how safe will user data be in such a wide-ranging system?

Data ownership is a critical factor in the future of AI, and IBM said that it “does not and will not own” any consumer data that’s shared via Watson Assistant. “Any data captured through conversations, texts, or videos is contained within the brand to better serve the customers,” explained IBM.

Internet of Business says

IBM’s comments about data ownership send an important signal to the AI and IoT communities that, for ‘Big Blue’, this isn’t about an Amazon-, Google- or Facebook-style data-grab, but about complementing human ingenuity with smart technology.

With its recent refocus on cognitive services under Virginia Rometty’s leadership, IBM has been working towards a future in which computers and human beings talk the same language, via conversational interfaces.

Watson has certainly been part of some promising experiments in recent years. For example, in 2016 the Hilton MacLean hotel in Virginia, US, linked a NAO humanoid robot called Connie to local data sets via Watson in the cloud to create a robot concierge in the foyer.

Connie was able to answer guests’ questions about local amenities and services, and grew smarter over time as more and more of these conversations took place.

The trial revealed three things. First, that industry-specific big data sets for smart assistants will be a growth hotspot over the next few years, provided by specialist startups. One such venture is ‘cognitive travel agent’ WayBlazer, which took part in the Hilton trial.

Second, that while human beings can of course offer these services (and have done for centuries), smart assistants and connected robots can access far more data, in real time, than a human being could possibly acquire or retain.

And third, that AI and natural language processing in the cloud, or on the edge, is a promising means for enabling the types of natural language conversations that humanoid robots have so far lacked.

Speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos in 2017, Rometty said that transparency is essential when it comes to AI, and that she believed that trust will only grow if organisations adopt three basic principles:

“One is understanding the purpose of when you use these technologies. For us, the reason we call it ‘cognitive’ rather than ‘AI’ is that it is augmenting human intelligence – it will not be ‘Man or machine’. Whether it’s doctors, lawyers, call centre workers, it’s a very symbiotic relationship conversing with this technology. So our purpose is to augment and to really be in service of what humans do.

“The second is, industry domain really matters. […] Every industry has its own data to bring to this and to unlock the value of decades of data combined with this. So these systems will be most effective when they are trained with domain knowledge.

“And the last thing is the business model. For any company, new or old, you’ve accumulated data. That is your asset. Data is a competitive advantage. So we believe strongly as a business that you need to be sure that the insights you get from your data belong to you. And that also applies to how these systems are trained.”

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