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IBM execs behind Jeopardy! computer visit GSB

Areas of Study , Coursework , Event Recaps , IT / Information Systems , Marketing Stories | Oct 30, 2012 |

by Balt Heldring (GSB ’14)

In 1997, IBM’s Deep Blue computer system beat the greatest chess player in the world, Garry Kasparov. With that feat conquered, IBM began searching for a new challenge, something that would spark the nation, as well as the world.

Its idea was simple: to develop a computer that could speak English and beat the top two earning Jeopardy! winners of all time, Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter, by coming up with the correct answer in three seconds or less.

In 2007, IBM set out to create such a computer. The company called it “Watson.”

Last week, the Gabelli School of Business was fortunate to have three top IBM marketers visit campus to talk about what it took to create Watson and how they used the computer as a marketing tool for future clients. They spoke to Meghann Drury’s Business Communication juniors and other students who wanted to attend.

Developing Watson was not always fun and games. The difficulty of designing a computer for Jeopardy! was much greater than designing one for the game of chess.

The struggle to make a computer answer questions in human language is enormous in its own sense. For instance, how does the computer differentiate the meaning of the word “bat”? It can refer to an animal, or an instrument used to hit a ball. It can be a noun or a verb. And that’s just one word! To process all of the information needed to function in English, Watson had to be able to access 200 million pages of structured and unstructured content, including the full text of Wikipedia. Eventually, the IBM programmers emerged victorious, and Watson was born.

The next challenge? To make Watson work for the company. This is where the marketing executives who visited Fordham last week encountered their set of challenges.

Here’s one, which may seem “elementary” (ha!) but isn’t: What were they to name the computer? A decision like this does not seem like it would keep people up at night, but it did! The company tossed around handfuls of names, among them Ace, BlueJ, ThinQ and DeepQA. None seemed to click, but then IBM came up with one that did: Watson, which also happens to be last name of one of the company’s founders.

Another was to get the word out. IBM marketers took to social media: Between 2007 and 2011, IBM received 153 million Twitter impressions and 6 million Facebook impressions. By the time the computer debuted on Jeopardy! in 2011, nearly 75 percent of America had heard of Watson.

The results were huge for Watson, Jeopardy! and IBM. Watson dominated Jennings and Rutter in a two-match battle. The show reached a ratings peak it hadn’t seen in four years. And, in a move devised by marketers to both benefit society and create positive PR, IBM donated 100 percent of Watson’s earnings to charity, while Jennings and Rutter each gave half of theirs.

Watson, however, was not created purely for entertainment. The rationale for creating what many call a “super computer” was to begin to have question-answering software interact with arenas such as medical diagnosis, business analytics and tech support.

For example, the company is working on code development with the health care industry to develop a Watson that caters to the needs of businesses such as WellPoint. The goal: a Watson that can take clues from health care data and discover what might be wrong with patients.

Today, IBM has gained 116 new clients because of Watson’s success. As IBM likes to say, “there’s just nothing like a Watson.”


Images courtesy of Jason Tromm (top) and Ray Krebs (bottom) via Flickr’s Creative Commons.

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