Watson to Help Shoppers

IBM has announced that it is readying a new application to be launched with Fluid Expert Shopper  — a company that creates apps to help shoppers.  In essence, you will be able to launch the Fluid app from your local personal digital assistant (iPad) or phone and access Watson, IBM's now famous Cognitive Application that recently won Jeopardy relying on its combination of natural language and its access to very large databases of information.  You might ask which lawnmower would be best for your Ohio half acre lawn, and proceed to carry on a conversation until Watson could provide you with recommendations.  It would, the IBM announcement assures us, be like having a very knowledgeable and reliable sales representative to advise you.

There any many things about this announcement — which you can access at www-03.ibm.com/press/us/en/pressrelease/43722.wss — that are interesting.  First, its unclear whether this app will only help with a specific line of products — which FORD truck is best for my needs — or whether it will be more like Consumer Reports and survey a whole field of available trucks.   Obviously the latter would be most advantageous to consumers, but might represent a harder business model.  In any case, the application will certainly represent a chance for most of us to find out what interacting with an expert system in the cloud would be like.

IBM has funded the IBM Watson Group with $1 billion dollars to encourage the rapid development of what they term Cognitive applications.  Of that some $100 million has been set aside to support direct investments in cognitive apps, like the one IBM is undertaking with Fluid.

Clearly, we are going to see some impressive new talking applications in the near future as IBM and its new partners try to figure out how best to use use these newly packaged expert system apps.  It will surely change business processes in ways we can hardly imagine.

Consider, for example, that there are systems that help you acquire airplane tickets at the best price.  The airline systems that offer tickets for sale have evolved so that they can update their prices every few minutes during certain periods, as their flights fill (or don't) and as alternative flights to the same destination fill (or don't).  IBM's shopping app, that recommends items as best buys could be gamed by systems that followed sales in certain items and adjusted prices to assure that hot items remained competitive.  This kind of development could easily make the process used for price setting and discounts into a very dynamic system that was constantly monitoring other systems and updating itself in response to customers who were simultaneously checking prices to find the greatest value.

As I say, it will be interesting to see just how Watson performs on its first commercial venture in a few months.

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