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IBM Watson Brainpowers Atlanta Startups with Supercomputing

by Renay San Miguel

The clue: This supercomputer crushed its big-brained competition in a very famous 2011 episode of Jeopardy, and now Atlanta’s entrepreneurs and software developers have access to its rapid data-crunching power.

The answer: What is IBM Watson?

That was the pitch Wednesday night from members of the IBM Watson team at General Assembly Atlanta as they told a startup community audience that their APIs and cloud computing services were available to them.

And all without the need to agonize over a Final Jeopardy question.

“A lot of people see Watson as hard to touch,” said IBM Watson digital strategist and team member Hayley Yudelman. “But the APIs are there, open to use and open to develop with, and we encourage everyone to be creative and see what they can come up with.”

In many industries, it’s not just the desire to be creative. It’s the need to stay afloat in a rapidly rising sea of data that not only holds the key to better sales, but also can unlock insights into customers/clients. That can come in handy for Atlanta’s legacy companies and its startups, along with software developers seeking to provide better data analytics services.   watsonpowerIt’s about technology that can make sense of unstructured data vs. structured data. The latter, according to fellow Watson team member and business development strategist Elise Smith, consists of Excel spreadsheets and the like, which can be analyzed using existing tools and technology. Unstructured data, which IBM says makes up 80 percent of what we attempt to digest every day, is in natural language, video or image form. It’s news stories, social media feeds, white papers and other business-related information.

“Structured data tells you what happened, tells you what your sales targets were,” Smith said. “Unstructured data tells you why.”

Yudelman pointed to marketing companies that are already using her company’s Personality Insights API, which extracts a user’s needs and values from text to create a profile. That layer sits atop of original demographic information – race, age, gender, etc. – to provide a better picture of who’s doing the buying and why, “so you can figure out who you want to target, which type of audience, which segment. It’s really opening up a better experience for marketing.”

OmniEarth, a Washington D.C.-area startup, is using IBM Watson’s Visual Recognition API to help drought-stricken California manage its water. The technology analyzes satellite image data “to figure out dynamic water usage patterns so they can really target the points where they can reduce water usage, and also help with customer education” Yudelman said. 28 IBM Watson Developer ServicesSmith says the IBM Watson APIs and cloud platforms are industry-agnostic and applicable across a variety of businesses, but they hold special promise for education. She pointed to an April announcement of an IBM partnership with Sesame Street involving Watson-enhanced toys and software that take better advantage of how a child absorbs knowledge.

IBM CEO Ginni Rometty has called Watson’s cognitive computing capabilities “our moon shot.David Shpigler, CEO of Atlanta “personalized learning” education startup Intelligent Pathway, seconds that notion. His company, a 2016 Biz Launch finalist, is using IBM Watson’s cognitive analytics as the backbone for the adaptive learning platform his company is developing.

“If you look at the transformative capability that technology has on so many industries, we don’t do anything the way that we did 25, 50, 100 years ago except in education,” Shpigler said. “Yes, there are smart boards and technology and laptops in the classroom, but basically we’re still teaching the same way that we did 100 years ago. It’s a huge opportunity to really accelerate the development of the educational approach. It’s the first time we can use true machine learning to enhance the educational capability inside and outside the classroom.”

Adam Bird of IBM’s Global Entrepreneur program wants to steer Atlanta startup founders and developers to the IBM Watson Developer Cloud website, where they can learn more about the resources available. If companies have been in business less than five years and have less than $1 million in revenue, they can qualify for free access to a year’s worth of IBM cloud computing. “It’s a sandbox they get to play in,” Bird said, and once they graduate they’ll find that the prices for additional services will be “very competitive to Amazon and Microsoft Azure.

“As our CEO likes to put it, data is our natural resource of this century,” Bird said. “So understanding that information is where Watson really comes into play here, having the ability to run the analysis an have that cognitive capability to tell you which direction you need to go in to meet the needs of your client.”

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