Ginni Rometty, the chairman and CEO of IBM, stood on stage in front of a packed room and announced that she was going to make “a bold prediction.”
“In the future, every decision that mankind makes is going to be informed by a cognitive system like Watson,” she said, “and our lives will be better for it.”
Listening in were the crowds of engineers, designers, doctors, bankers, researchers, and reporters that IBM had ferried over to a massive glass-and-steel structure on the banks of the East River in Brooklyn.
The occasion was a new event, World of Watson, designed to showcase the “ecosystem” of innovation happening around Watson, IBM’s signature artificial-intelligence system.
Watson became famous in 2011 for beating Jeopardy! champion Ken Jennings at his own game. But now IBM has much larger plans for it, which Rometty was hinting at with her “bold prediction.”
“Jeopardy! was all about answers,” IBM Watson Group vice president Stephen Gold explained earlier in the day, describing how chefs were using Watson to develop new recipes. “This is all about discovery.”
Chef Watson, however, is just a fun example of the kind of creative thinking Watson can be trained to do. Rometty made clear that the company’s true aspirations are much larger and more consequential than what’s for dinner.
The World of Watson event drove this home. It suggested that cognitive systems have a place in almost any type of decision a person or company may be faced with, whether that involves buying a house, making an investment, developing a pharmaceutical drug, or designing a new toy.
“As Watson gets smarter, his ability to reason is going to exponentially increase,” Rometty said. What will be really game changing won’t be Watson’s knack for recalling facts faster than even the most trivia-savvy human, but its ability to assist people with the complex and nuanced tasks of decision-making and analysis.
“Watson deals in the gray area, where there’s not a perfect right and wrong answer,” she continued. “That’s the hardest thing we do as humans.”
If Rometty’s big prediction pans out, this — the gray area that was once our exclusive and often most-challenging domain — may eventually become much easier.