IBM Targets Businesses With Watson Voice Assistant

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IBM now plans for Watson to power digital assistant apps from retailers, banks, hotels, cars and home gadgets

IBM has launched a voice-powered digital assistant along the lines of Amazon’s Alexa and Apple’s Siri, but aimed at allowing businesses to provide such services under their own brands.

Unlike the smart speakers and AI assistants offered by the likes of Amazon, Apple, Google and Microsoft, IBM’s Watson Assistant won’t be offered under IBM’s own brand.

Instead, the company is offering it to third parties such as rental car companies and hotels, saying they can use it to provide smart services to their customers.

The business model means Watson can learn users’ preferences and share that information with other Watson-powered assistants via the IBM Cloud, if users choose to allow it to do so.

Who owns the data?

At the same time, IBM said it won’t retain users’ data for its own purposes, as other voice assistant makers do, but will instead allow the companies offering the service to retain control over the information.

“IBM does not and will not own the consumer data via Watson Assistant,” the company stated. “Any data captured through conversations, texts and videos is contained within the brand to better serve its customers.”

The company said Watson could allow personalised artificial intelligence (AI) to accompany users wherever they go, for instance readying a Watson-powered rental car and suggesting places to visit en route to the hotel.

At the hotel, Watson could automatically check in, adjust the room’s temperature and lighting, play music and display the user’s appointments and emails on a Watson-enabled wall dashboard, all activated when they unlock the door with an electronic key sent to their phone.

Such a scenario would, of course, depend on broad adoption by third-party companies, and would also require users to allow the detailed personal information collected by Watson to be shared across different applications.

IBM said it envisions Watson Assistant being adopted in sectors such as retail, banking and coffee shops, as well as smart home gadgets and office devices. IBM already offers a Watson-powered voice assistant for cybersecurity researchers, which it launched in February of last year.

At its annual Think conference in Las Vegas this week, IBM said partner Harman would demonstrate the assistant running in the cockpit of a Maserati GranCabrio.

Machine learning as a service

Also at the conference, IBM announced a feature for the Watson Studio development tool that offers a cloud-based, managed environment for developing AI models.

The tool allows developers to build a neural network using a drag-and-drop interface, making it accessible for non-programmers. It can also automatically tune the AI’s hyperparameters, a time-intensive process when carried out manually.

The company said it would work with Apple to make it easier to develop AI features using Watson and then build those features into an iOS application.

And it announced a the launch of the third generation of Power Systems servers in the IBM Cloud.

The servers are based on IBM’s Power9 RISC chip and Nvidia Tesla V100 GPUs with the NVLink interface, features that make it suitable for training machine learning models.

Google recently said it was using the new IBM processors in its own data centres.

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