Mad Dog 21/21: Wounding Watson
June 18, 2018 Hesh Wiener
CEO Ginni Rometty is highly regarded inside and outside IBM. For instance, the Forbes ranking of female executives puts Rometty in the top ten. Moreover, gender and other qualifiers aside, Rometty is one of the world’s prominent business leaders. When she does well, the results are widely broadcast; when she slips up, however, so is criticism. In the spring of 2018, media reported big layoffs in the health related activities within IBM’s Watson collection of technologies. The buck stopped with Rometty, who was undoubtedly rattled; she will recover. Watson was wounded; the prognosis is uncertain.
The Watson problem, an ordinary business headache, became a migraine. This, to a considerable extent, is due to its name. Watson is the most powerful name within IBM. The company’s first important leader was Thomas J. Watson and his successor and son, Thomas J. Watson, Jr., compounded the magic mix of IBM and the Watson name by chairing the company as it introduced the System/360, progenitor of all IBM mainframes produced to this very day. The Watson name is used to highlight IBM’s most prestigious research laboratory. Other than that one special application, the name Watson was sacrosanct within IBM until about 2008, when it was used to designate the group of technologies used to pit IBM computers against humans in a contest to win the quiz game Jeopardy.
Until IBM’s effort to use its Watson collection of technologies in Jeopardy, most people, and nearly all who were outside the computer industry, were likely to have two associations with the name Watson. The most widespread is the fictional character Dr. John H. Watson, the companion of Sherlock Holmes. Watson chronicled Holmes’s adventures, and his narrations yield the body of short stories and novels written by Arthur Conan Doyle. Doyle in real life – like his Watson in fiction – was a medical doctor.
The other well-known Watson was Thomas A. Watson, who worked with Alexander Graham Bell developing the telephone and later went into shipbuilding where he was also a success. The best known and possibly apocryphal story about Watson and Bell is about the first use of the telephone. Bell, in his workshop, used the telephone to summon his associate with the phrase, “Mr. Watson, come here. I want you.” Now, at least in the United States, where Jeopardy is very well known, Watson has a third widespread association thanks to IBM’s use of the name in advertisements that promote a variety of services Big Blue has bundled under the Watson rubric.
Outside the United States, IBM cannot as readily promote its emerging interests by citing its successful application of what it calls cognitive technologies to the game Jeopardy. Many people outside the USA have no idea what the game Jeopardy is like, although the American show does make appearances on television outside the United States, while translated and sometimes transformed versions of the game have been aired, with varying degrees of success, in localized versions on broadcasts in a couple dozen countries. In the United States, Jeopardy is a leading quiz show on television, a distinction it has enjoyed on and off for decades. When the viewing public seems to lose interest, the show may be paused and its format adjusted, after which it can emerge once again as a contender and often a leader in popularity.
Just as the game show Jeopardy has adjusted and evolved over time to better satisfy the shifting tastes of the television audience, to, too, has IBM’s Watson evolved as the company brings its cognitive, database and computing technologies to bear on a changing variety of opportunities. One key area of interest to IBM’s Watson developers and marketers is health. IBM’s Watson has become involved in support of cancer research and therapies at a number of institutions with a number of different goals. It has also used the same collection of skills and facilities in a closely related area of scientific interest, genetics. This two-pronged effort is very dynamic these days. Evidence of this is provided by the success in the general reading public of a pair of books by the physician, researcher and gifted writer, Siddhartha Mukherjee. His two key works, the first, Emperor of All Maladies, about the history of cancer and those who battle it, the second, The Gene: An Intimate History, about genetics and those who seek to understand it, are nowadays pretty much required reading for anyone with an interest in contemporary life sciences.
IBM has not confined its Watson efforts to medicine, biology and other health-related fields. There are Watson-based efforts underway in finance, in consumer behavior analysis, supporting chatterbots for children’s toys, in weather forecasting, as an aid in tax preparation, and elsewhere. Still, after IBM’s initial foray demonstrating the versatility of its work on a popular game show, where Watson beat the finest human contenders and garnered enormous publicity, Big Blue became particularly interested in giving Watson a role that would be viewed not only as a technological achievement and a business opportunity for IBM, but also as an idea that could make valuable contributions to society. Consequently, IBM made the Watson collection of services quite prominent in medical and related life science segments that would benefit from improved access to very large bodies of data, such as the information churned up by researchers, therapists, and other medical practitioners battling cancer.
This worked. Many people who do not usually become interested in technology are nevertheless keen to learn about the search for progress in oncology and other areas of medicine. The recognition spurred IBM to move rapidly ahead.
The company didn’t feel it could go far enough fast enough by developing from scratch data and cognitive analysis techniques for this data. Instead, IBM augmented organic growth of its existing Watson efforts by acquiring companies with some or all the requisite interest and know-how. The result was rapid growth, but also the acquisition of some people and some business groups that may have fit well in an acquired company before IBM absorbed the enterprise but which didn’t serve IBM as it digested the corporate entity if had bought.
So, while IBM was adding needed skills, experience, contacts and personnel, it was also picking up a lot of corporate groups that didn’t fit well with IBM’s plans and culture. The upshot, during the first half of 2018, was a decision to trim the bundle of businesses IBM had bought, and that meant closing some operations and shedding some people. It turned out, if press accounts were accurate, to be pretty dramatic. The Watson Health portion of IBM’s nascent Watson cluster was reportedly cut in two. And even though IBM said it continued to add people and whole organizations to its Watson efforts, the news reports emphasized the cuts more than the growth. IBM may have felt it was getting unfairly harsh treatment by the business and technical press, but there was little the company could do about the situation except ride out the wave of criticism and hope it could soon report better news for its Watson effort.
Adding to IBM’s woes was a lot of web posting by IBMers who were caught in the wave of staff reductions that included Watson-related Resource Actions. A Resource Action or RA is IBM jargon for a layoff. The two main IBM-related websites talking about layoffs are the Facebook page, Alliance or AllianceforIBM, originally created to support an effort to unionize IBM, and watchingibm.com a related website. In addition, there is an IBM section at thelayoff.com. This focus on IBM’s RA’d employees doesn’t help IBM’s image in the technology community or in the wider business world, even if it helps support former IBM personnel whose lives have been disrupted. While IBM is correct in pointing out that it has a huge number of employees who are secure in their jobs and only a relative handful that no longer serve the company’s missions, the disgruntled ex-IBMers and their supporters, who may have expected IBM to always find a place for all its people as conditions change. Chances are the wounding of Watson Health is bad for morale everywhere in Watson and probably across all of IBM, but at this time there is no information available to employees, shareholders or the general public that might yield a useful picture of the company’s condition.
Even as media reports criticized IBM for the harm done to its Watson activities, IBM reminded its people, investors and the world at large that it has a lot of irons in the fire. IBM has unveiled the world’s fastest supercomputer, taking back the lead in this special field from China. The Summit system is a big leap ahead for scientific computing and the processing of vast troves of information, ultra-big data. For the moment, IBM’s top brass might wish they had named things differently, calling the cognitive computing effort, a work in progress, Summit, and the supercomputer, a fait accompli, Watson.