IBM hopes Watson will lead the way in 'Silicon Alley'

When Ed Harbour, vice president of the IBM Watson Group, looks out the window of his office in the East Village neighborhood of New York City, he can stare across the street at Facebook’s East Coast base and see the bright green-painted bars outfitting its walls.

“You saw the bright blue ‘fins’ decorating our Immersion Room here?” he asks, referring to the sleek neon-blue color scheme of Watson’s cognitive computing system.

“See those green bars that Facebook has? Well, our colleagues have emulated us with their green bars. It’s a little competition. We admire their green bars, but they did show up after our blue came along.”

Harbour is being playful, but Facebook’s interior design scheme does speak to a larger reality for him: Through Watson, IBM envisions itself as a driving force and key influencer for the tech boom of the City That Never Sleeps.

New York’s East Village is experiencing a high-tech surge. IBM, Facebook, Twitter, AOL and other tech giants have moved in, not to mention education centers like New York University and The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, as well as countless small startups just around the corner. It’s a two-block bite of the Big Apple that people are calling “Silicon Alley,” and its growth is more than a little reminiscent of what happened in a certain valley in California’s Bay Area during the last century, Harbour said. And IBM’s Watson has to capitalize off the entrepreneurial drive coursing through this part of the city.

“This is the main hub for tech in New York and we thrive on the talent here,” Harbour said. “We thrive on the universities that encourage innovation. Cooper Union is here, NYU is here, Columbia is way up the street, but it’s here. It’s a great place.”

Watson – the “Jeopardy”-winning cognitive computing machine – made its move to the 120,000-square-foot downtown space with much fanfare in October after the Watson Group officially launched earlier last year. IBM's commitment to the Watson Group is significant – the company will invest more than $1 billion into the Watson Group. This investment will focus on development and research while also bringing cloud-based applications to market. This also includes $100 million for venture investments that will support IBM's recently launched "ecosystem" of start-ups and other companies that are developing Watson-powered cognitive apps through the IBM Watson Developer Cloud, according to a statement from IBM.

The goal? To take the company’s cognitive computing technology beyond a pop culture and tech geek curiosity and proliferate it across a diverse array of sectors.

From health care to education, to unexpected applications in toy manufacturing and even to the culinary arts, Watson has been expanding its influence and getting smarter. Earlier this month, IBM announced that it had acquired AlchemyAPI, a startup that provides software to realize natural language processing for a wide range of clients. The acquisition ensured that Watson’s body of knowledge will grow even larger.

Does this mean Watson is HAL, the all-knowing cognitive system from “2001: A Space Odyssey”? Harbour says no ... it makes Watson a helper, a guide, a facilitator across a wide range of industries. And taking advantage of New York’s resources is key to making this happen, he said.

“That’s why we chose this site. You have what we call the ‘perfect storm’ here. Look back on Silicon Valley in its early days – it’s similar building blocks for success here. You had a combination of educational talent, VC (venture capitalist) money and high-tech firm muscle, and then ended up with what we have in California today. I think Silicon Alley has all of that. It is growing because it has those things.”

A growing ecosystem

New York’s tech industry has quickly become vital to the city. According to a 2014 study from Endeavor Insight, the Partnership for New York City and Barclays, the city’s tech community grew twice as fast as Silicon Valley in dollars invested between 2003 and 2013. The number of New York’s tech employees grew more than 26 percent from 2010 to 2013.

Similarly, a 2014 study released by the New York State Comptroller found that between 2009 and 2013, roughly 7,000 tech companies in the city created 25,000 jobs. The same study found that venture capital firms invested roughly $1.3 billion in 222 tech companies in the New York metropolitan area, ranking third (behind Silicon Valley and New England) among national regions in venture capital funding.

But in order for Silicon Alley to be at least a complement, if not a competitor, to its counterpart on the West Coast, it’s important to form cohesive partnerships among all these startups and established companies.

Enter IBM’s Ecosystem program, geared for companies all over the world to “embed” Watson’s computing capabilities to their own operations to create cognitive apps. Companies that join the Ecosystem use the Watson Developer Cloud, an application that offers a “personalized selling experience” to these companies, according to IBM Watson’s website.

“When a company wants to join our ecosystem, a developer or executive at a company looks for ways to make use of our cognitive technology, approaches us, and then a member of our team sees how to use their specific case, bring it to the ‘build cycle’ to make it a reality, and then eventually take their product into the market,” says Lauri Saft, Ecosystem director at IBM Watson.

She said that members of the Ecosystem come from “a broad reach of people, companies, and industries,” and it’s important to make the process of supporting a client as specific as possible.

“It’s this ideation of what kind of business are you trying to build?” she said. “How do you serve the clients’ different needs and expectations? You create an experience that works.”

The child in Watson

One of the most inventive members of the Ecosystem is Elemental Path – a small New York-based startup that has created CogniToys, billed as the world’s first “Internet-connected smartoys.” They’re Watson-powered, Wi-Fi-connected plastic dinosaurs – chosen because the prehistoric reptiles were found to be gender-neutral – that answer questions children ask by pressing a button on the toy’s stomach. From things like “How far away is the moon?” to “Who is the president of the United States?” the toy utilizes information fed by Watson to offer fun, funny, and insightful answers from its ever-inquisitive young users. Elemental Path recently raised $275,000 (its initial goal was $50,000) from a Kickstarter campaign. The toys are expected to hit production in early November.

“Conceptually, our business, this toy, couldn’t happen without Watson,” said Donald Coolidge, one of Elemental Path’s co-founders.

The IBM partnership came about last year when Coolidge and his team entered the IBM Watson Mobile Developer Challenge. They came through the first round of the competition – there were 3,000 submissions globally – made it to the final 25 and pitched their product to a panel of judges in Orlando, Fla. Their pitch was hypothetical and very low-tech – the team spoke to a plush toy on stage, co-founder J.P. Benini said.

But it impressed the judges and gave the startup five days’ access to Watson. Coolidge said the team worked around the clock to fine-tune the product and test how an IBM partnership could work. He said his team took the toy from “concept to ready-for-market in just about five months.”

“The Ecosystem allows us to have more tools to use in our salvo,” Benini said. “Using the Watson platform isn’t reserved exclusively for health care or Big Data analysis. This toy can do ‘little data’ analysis as well. You are the only limiting factor.”

Saft reiterated to the team the crucial role the Ecosystem can have in making next-generation toys a reality:

“Watson gives you guys this kind of access and investment and brainpower at your disposal,” she said. “In the end, that is going to help any startup to grow.”

Dr. Watson

Beyond toys, Watson has been making its mark in an area more in its wheelhouse – health care. For the past few years, it’s been leveraged by health care providers to apply Big Data solutions to making patient access to health care easier. Watson’s proximity to several medical giants in New York has allowed it to play a large role in everything from cancer research to genomics.

A year ago, the New York Genomic Center and IBM announced that Watson would be used to help oncologists provide specialized care to individuals with glioblastoma, a malignant brain cancer that kills 13,000 people in the U.S. every year.

Genomics uses DNA sequencing methods and bioinformatics – which develop software tools to make sense of complex biological data – to study the structure of genomes. Doctors have to correlate information from genome sequencing with information culled from medical journals, research and patient records.

Crafting specific patient-by-patient prognoses is exhaustive, but Watson can process information quickly, enabling doctors to track down more information for more patients at a fast pace.

“The partnership with the Genomic Center is fantastic,” Harbour said. “They discovered that genomics are the future of medicine, and Watson helped them solve it faster. Watson isn’t a doctor, it’s an adviser to help physicians make the best possible decisions for patients that can lead to the best outcome.”

Dr. Mark Kris, the William and Joy Ruane chair in thoracic oncology at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, did not know what Watson was until he watched “Jeopardy.” An avid fan of the game show, he was astounded that the computer “just knew everything.”

“I just thought Watson spit out answers to questions like ‘Who won the 1947 World Series?’ ” Kris said. “But that’s not really what it does. What it does is solve a problem with a specific kind of certainty. You know the answer is the right answer. It can determine everybody’s favorite color is blue by reading that information quickly from five different books and correlating all of that data.

“That way of thinking, by the way, is exactly how a doctor learns. It’s a very natural thing – the computer takes a modicum of knowledge, and through repetition, apprenticeship, essentially each time it gets better.”

In 2012, Memorial Sloan Kettering and IBM announced their partnership to create a Watson-based tool that, like the one used by the Genomic Center, gives doctors the ability to make accurate, quick decisions through the use of Big Data processing.

Kris said using Watson’s technology was a “no-brainer.”

“I’m a doctor and I have to make these treatment decisions every day,” he said. “It’s becoming more and more complex. It’s coming down to the molecular level now. It’s about precision medicine, personalized medicine. It’s about looking at specific damage that is done to this specific gene.

“There are a lot of cancers out there, and the first thing that Watson does that is great is that it provides a ready way of pulling in up-to-date, comprehensive information, right at our fingertips.”

For Kris, the speed at which cognitive computing is changing cancer research is astounding. Recalling his undergraduate years at Fordham University, he said, “I was asked to give a lecture at a computer science class recently, and I was giving a lecture in the same classroom that I used to sit in, and it dawned on me that there wasn’t such a thing as a computer science class back then.”

He laughed. “Thank God things have gotten better. What is key to remember is that this is an assistant. It doesn’t fix things, but it allows us to do a better job. It helps us make sure that the right treatment is given to the right patient.”

Chef Watson

Watson brings the same precision that it brings to cancer research to the kitchen. Arriving next month: “Cognitive Cooking with Chef Watson,” a cookbook containing more than 65 recipes cooked up by Watson and the best of the best from New York’s Institute of Culinary Education (ICE).

The idea of a cognitive computing, robotic chef might sound a little closer to “The Jetsons” than real life, but for James Briscione, ICE’s director of culinary development, Watson proved to be a useful collaborator.

“When the research team from IBM came to us from ICE, at the time it seemed like a crazy idea,” Briscione said. “But they were looking for new ways to innovate and be creative, and it was such an interesting, fun project to be a part of.”

In order to make Watson the most knowledgeable chef around, ICE fed the computer a healthy spoonful of 30,000 recipes from the institute’s database. From there, Briscione said, the ICE team gave Watson a test run, using IBM’s technology to pull ingredients from countless countries and cultures. Imagine your favorite chef having access to a bottomless resource of flavors, influences, textures, and styles, and you have Chef Watson.

Briscione said the ICE team worked in secret, using Watson to mix and match recipes, before Chef Watson’s big public launch. At last year’s South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, Briscione, Florian Pinel, senior software engineer at IBM Watson Group, and ICE Creative Director Michael Laiskonis pulled up in the IBM Food Truck. For five days they treated visitors to eclectic cuisine that showcased Watson’s ability to take information from the best culinary minds at ICE and create unique, memorable dishes. Chef Watson was a hit.

For Briscione, the Food Network’s first “Chopped Champion,” the most exciting thing about Chef Watson is the ability to “put a very familiar ingredient in a new context.” He said this pushes him and his colleagues to “be the most creative, and present the most unexpected dishes that we could.”

The Chef Watson project has also provided a way for IBM to expand the idea of Silicon Alley partnerships. Collaboration doesn’t have to come from a tech startup or a high-tech-focused hospital. Instead it can take advantage of New York mainstays like ICE to forge surprising partnerships.

Watson in education

Harbour, Saft and almost every member of the IBM Watson team say the company’s education partnerships are crucial to establishing IBM’s dominance in the New York innovation space. Cooper Union is next door, and the East Village has long been NYU’s home. Just look at the Starbucks across from IBM’s Astor Place office and you’ll see a seamless mixture of rushing undergrads and tech professionals.

This proximity to education centers is key, says Pam Induni, IBM Watson Group’s academic engagement manager. Induni, who is not based in New York, said Watson’s interest in education is crucial for the sole purpose of potentially inspiring the future leaders of the tech world.

“Many of the schools we work with have incubators on campus,” she said. “We sponsor case competitions, give students access to Watson’s app development, and it’s all about building skills. It’s all about allowing these students to figure out, ‘How do we take it to the next step?’ ”

One school that has benefited from Watson is the City University of New York (CUNY). In January, it announced the winners of a technology case competition in which teams of students proposed ideas for solving urban problems facing the city. The teams came from a wide range of disciplines: computer science, math, urban studies and marketing. Finalists presented their projects to a panel of judges, who selected three winners. First prize was $5,000, second was $3,000 and third was $2,000. All participants from all the teams also have the opportunity to participate in summer internships and bring their project ideas to CUNY’s Center for Student Entrepreneurship Incubator, a program that gives students the opportunity to potentially launch their own businesses.

Stan Altman, a professor at CUNY’s Baruch College School of Public Affairs, said the competition enables students to have an effect on the city through Watson’s technology.

“You have these students graduating with an energized look at how to impact the community,” he said. “They can look at ways to impact the nonprofit sector, improve higher education, look at city agencies. They can use technology to organize human activity and give them an integrated view on how all the pieces fit together in today’s world.”

Looking forward

Back in October, IBM announced some global expansions for Watson. Hospitals, banks and universities in Thailand, Spain, South Africa and Australia have formed Watson partnerships. The cognitive computing system’s reach is expanding beyond the United States, which Saft said hints at the growing role of this technology in daily life.

“I do think A.I. is becoming ubiquitous,” she said. “I don’t say that lightly. It’s going to be everywhere.

“You know, I was telling my boss the other day that my grandfather was a bricklayer in Springfield, Illinois. He used to say, ‘Here, I built that building, and I built that stairwell,’ and I said that what’s cool for us here is that we can point to different projects, different innovations and say, ‘We did that. That’s us.’ ”

She said part of the pride is building that base of innovation out from New York and spreading it around the world.

For Elemental Path’s Coolidge, an entrepreneur behind a small startup, being able to utilize the city’s diverse resources has energized his company’s approach to business.

“New York City is a melting pot of different industries,” he said. “So many people come here and want the challenge that New York poses. We work with a lot of startups that are trying to solve complex problems. They go out and fail trying to achieve something. Some succeed. It’s really ambitious to try to launch the first ‘connected toy.’ That’s why Watson is a real powerful component. They helped us come up with an ambitious solution, and it’s worked out so far.”

Asked to fill in the “blank” – Watson plus Silicon Alley equals “blank” – Coolidge paused before saying, “It’s the new era of computing.”

Harbour said, “There’s a freshness of attitude here, this sense of ‘we are going to do some cool things here.’ I’m going to use an old term … There’s a ‘pioneering spirit,’ kind of like, ‘We’ve got this, you guys don’t have to worry about this on the West Coast.’ ”

He said it’s also important to remember that New York City, a melting pot of diversity, is characterized by its mix of people. Moving forward, he said, it’s important for IBM to maintain that focus on the individual in Watson’s ethos.

“Watson isn’t just a machine doing these things,” he said. “It’s really in partnership with people.”