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Tough test facing Jeopardy! champion Watson

First Published      Last Updated Jul 23 2014 09:38 am

New York • International Business Machines is putting its Watson natural-language technology to the test with consumers on a wide scale for the first time.

On the website of financial-services firm USAA, military customers will be able to use IBM's tool to ask questions and seek advice on transitioning back to civilian life. Famous for being a "Jeopardy!" game-show champion, Watson analyzes information and can answer questions in conversational English.

The USAA deal gives IBM its biggest test yet of whether consumers will embrace Watson, a technology that's become a bigger focus of the company's investments and marketing. IBM sees data analytics tools like Watson as a source of growth to counter declining demand for hardware that has led to nine straight quarters of falling sales.

"Traditional methods of providing advice and information aren't scaling," John Gordon, vice president of IBM's Watson Group, said in an interview. "This is a fundamentally different approach."

While Watson has previously been available to consumers in some limited tests, such as a mobile application for home cooks, this is the first service to be widely available, Gordon said.

IBM and USAA, based in San Antonio, worked for about nine months to develop the tool to answer questions specific to customers leaving the military, like whether to seek out veteran's benefits or how to buy a home, said Eric Engquist, assistant vice president of military transitions at USAA. More than 150,000 military members transfer to civilian life a year, Engquist said.

While persuading customers to turn to a technology for life coaching will "certainly" require a change in behavior, the tool could give customized, 24-hour access that wasn't possible with USAA's website or its employees, Engquist said. It could also be a test for expanding Watson's use more broadly at USAA.

As sluggish demand for computer servers has hurt sales, IBM has focused on more profitable, faster-growing areas such as data analytics and cloud computing while selling hardware businesses.

Last year, IBM boosted its expected sales from the data- analysis business to $20 billion in 2015, compared with an earlier forecast of $16 billion. The company said in January that it will spend $1 billion to create a new division around Watson to help spur growth.