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IBM opens Watson 'cognitive computer' to developers

IBM opens Watson 'cognitive computer' to developers

IBM's Watson, once a 90-server cluster, has improved to the point where it can run on a single Linux-based Power 750 - and IBM is opening it to developers as a cloud-based service.

IBM has announced plans to open up its Watson supercomputing technology as a cloud-based development platform, giving coders the chance to build software with what the company calls 'cognitive computing intelligence.'

First introduced in 2011, Watson was built as a new breed of supercomputer: a cognitive computing system. Designed to 'think' rather than calculate, the system caught the public eye when it entered as a contestant on the US gameshow Jeopardy, winning the top price of $1 million in a special competition against champions Brad Rutter and Ken Jennings. Earlier this year, the company found a more worthy use for the platform: decision making in lung cancer treatment at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Centre, with a claimed 90 per cent of nurses consulting the system opting to follow its advice.

The system operates as a question-answering computational platform, using various techniques to process over 500 gigabytes of data per second in order to respond to queries. Sadly, that sort of performance never came cheaply: the original Watson was powered by 90 Power 750 servers with a total of 2,880 processors. Since its inception two years ago, however, IBM claims to have boosted Watson's performance by 240 per cent and dropped its physical requirements by 75 per cent - allowing a Watson instance to run from a single Linux-based Power 750 server.

The result: IBM is making Watson's technology available to developers as a cloud-based service. 'By sharing IBM Watson's cognitive abilities with the world, we aim to fuel a new ecosystem that accelerates innovation, creativity and entrepreneurial spirit,' claimed Michael Rhodin, Senior Vice President of IBM's Software Solutions Group, at the announcement. 'With this move, IBM is taking a bold step to advance the new era of cognitive computing. Together with our partners we'll spark a new class of applications that will learn from experience, improve with each interaction and outcome, and assist in solving the most complex questions facing the industry and society.'

Those partners, granted early access to the platform, have already found uses for the thinking computer: Welltok plans to launch individually-tailored 'Health Itineraries' developed on the platform; MD Buyline, a healthcare-focused supply chain solutions provider, plans an application dubbed Hippocrates to allow clinical and financial users to make better decisions regarding the purchase of medical devices; and online shopping expert Fluid has teased a system which will allow buyers to interact directly with a Watson-powered instance to get the personal shopper experience without the inconvenience of having to talk to a real, live human being.

Companies looking to use the IBM Watson Developers Cloud are offered two data sources: they can use their own corpus, or they can access the IBM Watson Content Store for pulling in third-party data. With Watson relying on as large a corpus of data as possible for its 'intelligence' - the Jeopardy-winning performance was powered by four terabytes of data including the complete text of Wikipedia - that Content Store could prove to be IBM's most powerful asset.

Developers interested in building a Watson-powered application can apply on IBM's website, but be warned: you'll need to reveal your idea with no promise of gaining access, and as yet no word on pricing for access to the platform.

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