IBM Supercomputer Watson Now a Customer Service Agent

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He’ll take a new job for $0, Alex.

Watson, IBM’s supercomputer that was introduced to the world on Jeopardy! when it handily defeated the game show’s two most successful human contestants, is trying out a new gig as a customer service agent.

The artificial intelligence system has a new application, called the Watson Engagement Advisor, that will use the same capacity to respond to natural language that it demonstrated with Alex Trebek, except now with customer service requests from everyday people.

"Watson pulls up stuff that an agent wouldn’t because it is looking for semantic links, not just doing text-matching based on keywords," Manoj Saxena, general manager of IBM Watson Solutions, said to Forbes.

Watson is also expected to be a faster alternative because customers will not have to wait on hold to talk to a real person. In tests at IBM’s call centers, the new program cut search time for information by 40 percent.

Watson was fed data from call center logs, emails, training manuals, terms and conditions, and more. It can respond to people’s inquiries about data plans, accounts, contract terms, advice, and any other topic for which a person would call customer service. With time, its responses will get even faster and more accurate by learning from complaints and customers’ preferences.

Customers can ask for assistance via web chats, email, SMS, and smartphone apps. So far, the Watson Engagement Advisor is available in beta to major IBM clients Nielsen, Celcom, HIS, Royal Bank of Canada, and Australia’s ANZ Bank.

According to Forbes, ANZ Bank is going to start deploying Watson at its private wealth group, beginning with insurance offerings. Joyce Phillips, CEO of ANZ’s global wealth and private banking group, said, “Imagine if you could sit down with an advisor and, in the time it takes to make a cappuccino, Watson will pull up all of your accounts, read all the fine print, and tell you what kinds of insurance protection you’re missing or where you’re overcovered.”

Later this year, a smartphone app called Ask Watson also is expected to launch. Similar to the iPhone’s Siri service, a user could ask a question starting with “Hey, Watson,” and the app would pull up a condensed answer and any corresponding websites.

Since Watson’s stint on Jeopardy! in 2011, IBM says the supercomputer has gotten “smarter, faster, and smaller,” with a 240 percent improvement in system performance. Watson can be run on a single Power 750 server using Linux, which reduces the cognitive computer system from the size of a bedroom to the area of four pizza boxes.

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Beth Romanik

A recovering print journalist, Beth Romanik is now a writer and editor for TechWell, StickyMinds, and Better Software magazine. She has worked for several other newspapers, magazines, and websites. Beth is excited about new gadgets and developments in technology, but she'll always have a soft spot for paper and ink.