supercomputers

Watson will be taking your calls now

May 21, 2013: 7:02 AM ET

IBM's supercomputer is getting a job in customer service.

iPhone5_1136x640-002FORTUNE -- It's still a sluggish job market out there, but apparently not for supercomputers. IBM's question-answering machine Watson, best known for beating lowly humans on Jeopardy!, just got a new job. According to the tech giant, Watson will now be employed in customer service centers, used as a tool for both representatives and consumers to get fast, data-driven responses.

It's been two years since Watson made its debut on Jeopardy!. Since then, IBM (IBM) and a handful of beta customers have tested the supercomputer's chops in the medical field, where Watson can assist physicians in diagnosing different kinds of cancers and evaluate the best course of treatment, taking into account mountains of medical journals, electronic health records, and other data sets. IBM has always had big plans for Watson and has talked about its potential in all sorts of verticals, not just health care (and game shows). And now we know Watson's next career move: trying to improve the far-from-glamorous call center industry.

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"We believe that Watson is going to create a whole new class of applications that have the capability for questions and answers and that learns over time," says Manoj Saxena, general manager of Watson Solutions. IBM CEO Ginni Rometty has also hinted at Watson's future, recently telling Fortune that " ... we are also now about to come out with Watson in what we consider as an advisor, and it will be in volume around research-oriented industries. Think of things like pharma; or as a client advisor in industries that have huge numbers of end retail clients. And so, think of financial services, think of a telco."

The newest flavor of Watson will be called the "Watson Engagement Advisor" and will help customer service agents and end customers find the answers to their questions via an "Ask Watson" feature available through mobile devices, online chat sessions, email, and other means. IBM says the Watson Engagement Advisor will be able to "quickly address customers' questions, offer advice to guide their purchase decisions, and troubleshoot their problems." In other words, if you thought it was hard getting to a live customer service representative before, it could soon get much, much harder (on the plus side, you'll get to interact with a computer with more computer power and memory than the human brain).

Brands like Nielsen (NLSN), Celcom, and Royal Bank of Canada (RY) are exploring ways they can use Watson to improve their customer service process. IBM's Saxena says an insurance company could use its supercomputer to quickly suggest personalized products. "That kind of interaction today requires the customer service person to have a lot of knowledge about the products that are available and how to match them to customers using their age and other data."

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Consumer research firm Nielsen plans to experiment with using Watson to assist media planners and advertisers. "They're swimming in oceans and oceans of data but it's still hard to answer simple questions like how much to spend next year and how to optimize spending in real time to improve impact," says Randall Beard, global head of advertiser solutions for Nielsen.

Regardless of how Watson fares in its call center job, its future could be very bright. IBM says the supercomputer has gotten faster, smarter, and smaller, all attributes that will help increase its chances of becoming more mainstream (the original Watson was the size of a large bedroom; the current product is the size of four pizza boxes). And the company is banking on embedding Watson into all sorts of its own apps and services. More importantly, IBM wants to open up its super-smart machine so that other companies can write applications on top of Watson -- that's slated for later this year. So where will Watson go next? Everywhere, if IBM has its way.

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