Has IBM Returned to the Halcyon Days of Offering a Technology-Enhanced Tomorrow That Will Improve the Lives of Many? Watson says, “Yes”.
When I was a kid, IBM represented the exciting, science-enabled, techno-future of a SciFi nerd's dreams. Everyone I knew was aware of the company, and if there was a futuristic movie with a computer in it, it was likely to be an IBM computer. In short, in many ways, the perception was that IBM = the future.
Years later as a young man just getting a foothold in the working world, the advent of the IBM PC XT and PC AT , coupled with Lotus 1-2-3, opened the doors to new jobs like “PC Coordinator” that set the stage for my career.
Sadly however, by the end of the 90's, IBM had lost its vital position in the new age of “micro computing”. Of course, they never went away. In fact, many are surprised to learn that they remain a top Fortune 100 company to this day (although they've been slipping). But if you ask a millennial what they know about IBM, they are likely to answer with a blank stare. The age of cultural awareness of the technology behemoth known as IBM had passed.
Or has it?
Some of you may think of the Jeopardy-winning super computer technology known as “Watson”, when you think of IBM. With numerous commercials featuring the likes of Venus Williams and Bob Dylan, IBM has been increasingly promoting Watson through digital media recently. Maybe you've seen some of those commericials.
Recently, I had the good fortune of taking a field trip with fellow members of the chapter of SIM that I participate in (SIM is the Society for Information Management, an excellent group to be a member of if you are in IT management). We visited IBM's NYC offices and spent several hours being introduced to Watson by leaders in IBM's Cognitive Computing division. What we learned was fascinating … I had no idea how far the technology had come, how widely used it is, and how much of a part of IBM's future it is becoming. Watson and IBM's Cognitive and Cloud Services are poised to account for up to 50% of IBM's business in the next couple of years.
The Watson platform is not a single super computer, it is a set of “cognitive” APIs (software modules) that act in some ways like a young human brain and can be trained accordingly. There are APIs that can parse human speech and recognize emotional context, recognize and process visual images, extract and analyze personality attributes from a person's unstructured text, store vast amounts of information and use it in unprecedented ways to predict behaviors and suggest solutions, and much more.
Clients who procure Watson services can train Watson to understand their industry, their challenges, their customers, etc., and use this wealth of knowledge to offer real time analysis, diagnostics, and discover solutions to address challenges. Watson technology is being used to provide automated customer service in ways far beyond what prior automated solutions could offer, but it is also being used to help identify cancers and optimal therapies, and in a wide array of applications in other industries.
So What About Watson and Education?
This video provides a good introduction to the possibilities engendered by IBM's cognitive services when they are applied to world of education.
“The rapid digitization of the education industry and the emergence of cognitive systems is already happening in parallel. Over the next five years, the two concepts will link, and personalized classrooms will motivate and engage learners at all levels: from a kindergartener studying the alphabet to a physics PhD candidate studying the finer points of String Theory.” (source: IBM website)
This technology certainly seems to have the potential to bring about the vision of many in the world of edtech … the shift from a one-size-fits-all model to a truly personalized environment.
In one real-world example that has already come to pass, Hamilton County schools in Tennessee county have worked with IBM and increased graduation rates 8%. This was made possible with predictive modeling that identifies students at risk of dropping out, leading to intervention with tailored support.
So maybe IBM really is on it's way back to empowering the dream of a future enabled by technology that can truly impact lives. Kind of makes me feel like a kid again … full of wonder and hope for tomorrow.