IBM’s Watson is capturing the imagination of the computing elite. It blew through the early rounds of Jeopardy but stumbling here and there:

The supercomputer tripped up a couple of times last night, notably when it bid $6435 on and got the response wrong after misreading the clue. “In May 2010 5 paintings worth $125 million by Braque, Matisse & 3 others left Paris’ museum of this art period,” the clue read. Watson replied “Picasso,” naming one of the three other artists whose paintings were stolen (the other two were Amedeo Modigliani and Fernand Leger) when, of course, the response being sought was the rest of the museum’s name, “Modern Art.”

Twice last night the supercomputer repeated a wrong answer delivered by a quicker-to-the-buzzer competitor. Watson also had trouble in general with the art-related clues. Didn’t Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s android Data struggle with such things as well? Computers and creative thinking clearly do not go well together.

Watson also failed to answer correctly during Final Jeopardy, a clue asking them to name which U.S. city has one airport named after a World War II hero and another named after a World War II battle. “Toronto?????” the computer replied, which isn’t even a U.S. city. It bet only $947 though, which kept the final money tally far ahead of the other two competitors.

Even then Watson was unsure and had bet little money on getting the right answer. More seriously and beyond pure game playing what is the Watson potential?

Vijay Vijayasankar, IBM associate partner and SAP Mentor colleague talks about his personal excitement at seeing this project reach a genuine milestone. He also talks about the obvious comparisons that will be made between Watson and SAP’s HANA, the in-memory fast compute technology that SAP is hoping will take thew world by storm.

More broadly, innovative ideas around business intelligence and AI as applied to business problems have been in short supply.  Watson is an exciting development even though many I speak with see it as little more than an elevated science project that takes what Deep Blue did a step further. That would be a huge mistake. While IBM is touting Watson as the Next Big Thing and (without exactly saying) the closest thing we’ve seen to the cure for the common cold, there are plenty of scenarios where it would be immensely helpful. Vijay describes one simple use case but others I saw at eWeek resonated well for service based industries:

In the legal field, lawyers could have access to a “vast, self-contained database” loaded with all of the internal and external information relating to litigation, protecting intellectual property, writing contracts or negotiating an acquisition, Robert C Weber, IBM’s senior vice president of legal and regulatory affairs, wrote in the National Law Journal.

“Think about the possibilities for medical diagnosis support, for better anticipating the energy needs of utilities, or for protecting insurers, banks and governments from fraud,” Weber said.

Social services employees could use a Watson-like system to easily differentiate claims that come in each day, Anne K Altman, a general manager in IBM Global Public sector, wrote in Government Technology. The system could separate out the claims for life-saving treatments as well as help caseworkers find similar cases from the past, she said.

Watson has not reached a state of sublime understanding…yet…but it is looking mighty promising.

More resources:
What is Jeopardy? Who is Watson? Watson Participated in Jeopardy Match to Beat Jeopardy Elites [Video]
IBM Watson’s Jeopardy play
Beyond Jeopardy! with IBM Watson – Quick Analysis