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Making Friends with IBM’s Watson in Austin

Michael Hendrix

Senior Director, U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation

AUSTIN – It’s all about that open data. Cities are sitting on a huge store of information. The question is, What are the data’s utility? Is it available, consistently released, and frequently accessed? IBM knows these questions all to well.

Today’s Congress of Cities, a convention of city leaders from across the country, brought me to IBM’s 6,000-person facility just north of downtown Austin. There we met with engineers from the company’s Watson and Smarter Cities efforts who were eager to show offer their work.

First we met Watson, IBM’s Jeopardy!-winning supercomputer. The real value with this machine is its ability to interface with humans like we do with each other. It’s all about man and machine working alongside each other. Ask Watson a question and it’ll grasp the nuance and know when to plumb for more detail. It understands people in normal conversation. Watson can respond like a person too, as evidenced by a new “sassy personality” called Willow that its engineers showed off.

Watson as chit-chat machine is one “engine” it runs. The other is the core Watson pipeline, where it reviews large numbers of documents and combines them into a unique answer. This the Watson that works with doctors at Sloan-Kettering and MD Anderson to pair patient cases with a query of the entire corpus of medical knowledge in half a second, producing a series of solutions for the doctor to consider (ranked by likelihood of accuracy).

Watson already ingests medical data and journals, country Facebook data, and the latest news. The next step for its engineers is to process video and images, garnering their meaning and then being able to reply to queries in video or image form. If you’re looking for a sign of our times, a groundbreaking supercomputer speaking in Grumpy Cat memes is probably it.

Next we visited the Smarter Cities team on the other side of IBM’s campus. Their software is like a system of systems, connecting different bodies of information together in a single citywide portal. The result of almost a god-like view of the city. The point is to leverage information, anticipate demand, and coordinate resources for everything from a city’s transportation, water, and energy systems.


Perhaps the greatest benefit of a smart city system is seen in an emergency. Right now, getting hit by, say, a tornado results in city mangers scrambling in something like a fog of war, grasping desperately for critical information from numerous sources. IBM basically is equipping responders to be able to pull up real-time information on EMS, traffic lights, power lines, and more right off their smart phones, right when they need it.

Once you see these capabilities first-hand, you begin to wonder if there is quickly becoming a new digital divide in America. Not between rich and poor people, who nearly all enjoy at least some mobile Internet access, but between those cities using their data and those that don’t. Those places in America mining their data resources are likely to be more competitive and better governed than their peers.

This post originally appeared on the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation’s website here.

Michael Hendrix

Senior Director, U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation

As the director for emerging issues and research at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation, Michael Hendrix manages the Foundation’s research, programming, communications, and publications. He is project director of…