IBM supercomputer Watson aims to help businesses

Watson IBM Image copyright IBM
Image caption The supercomputer aims to help solve business problems

IBM's supercomputer Watson is being made available to businesses to answer tricky questions such as: "Which deals are most likely to close?"

The cognitive platform can understand questions posed in natural language and crunch vast amounts of data.

Watson Analytics is the latest step in IBM's $1bn (£610m) investment in the platform, which is already available for medical research.

But one expert questioned whether it could live up to past successes.

Watson is a computer system capable of artificial intelligence. In 2011 it was tailored to answer questions on the quiz show Jeopardy and won. It had access to 200 million pages of content but was not connected to the internet.

Since then IBM has worked to find more practical uses for the machine, such as helping to make decisions about cancer treatment at a US hospital.

This latest move is part of an attempt to commercialise the platform.

"Watson Analytics is designed to help all businesspeople - from sales reps on the road to company CEOs - see patterns, pursue ideas and improve all types of decisions," said IBM's senior vice-president Bob Picciano.

The first version of Watson Analytics, ready in test form in November, will be available as a cloud-based service, with both free and premium services, which can analyse more complex datasets from a wider array of sources.

Track record

Most existing business analysis tools assume users have data ready to look at, a clear idea of what they want to analyse and the skills and time to do it.

IBM hopes that a tool offering to do much of this work will prove a draw.

Watson does have a good track record, according to Gartner analyst Frank Buytendijk.

"IBM Watson has proven itself very capable to achieve astonishing results, way beyond traditional analytics," he said.

"But most of this work has been done in controlled environments and for very specific topics. There is not a lot of market feedback on Watson performing 'out there in the wild.'"

The decision to offer business analytics via the platform could open up an interesting dilemma for IBM.

"From what I understand of it so far, Watson Analytics is not really the big Watson Jeopardy Supercomputer Cognitive thing, but a next generation of IBM's business analytics software, now also labelled Watson," said Mr Buytendijk.

"Clearly Watson Analytics is a step forward compared to the traditional business analytics market, and it is clearly very innovative. At the same time, labelling it Watson creates a very, very high level of expectations, which is hard to fulfil."

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