The joke goes like this:
Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson decide to go on a camping trip. After dinner and a bottle of wine, they lay down for the night, and go to sleep.
Some hours later, Holmes awoke and nudged his faithful friend.
“Watson, look up at the sky and tell me what you see.”
Watson replied, “I see millions of stars.”
“What does that tell you?”
Watson pondered for a minute.
“Astronomically, it tells me that there are millions of galaxies and potentially billions of planets.”
“Astrologically, I observe that Saturn is in Leo.”
“Horologically, I deduce that the time is approximately a quarter past three.”
“Theologically, I can see that God is all powerful and that we are small and insignificant.”
“Meteorologically, I suspect that we will have a beautiful day tomorrow.”
“What does it tell you, Holmes?”
Holmes was silent for a minute, then spoke: “Watson, you idiot. Someone has stolen our tent!”
Last week, I found this eight page insert in the New York Times, and I was left wondering if this IBM ad was inadvertently another form of the joke.
IBM, you see, is trying (again) to transform itself. Once the industry leader in whatever it wanted to do, it has now spent years slowly decapitalizing as it tries to find a commercial niche.
Now, it is offering services based on Watson, noting that “Watson is designed to understand, reason and learn. In a sense, to think.”
In a sense?
Here’s a quick summary from Wikipedia:
Watson is a question answering (QA) computing system that IBM built to apply advanced natural language processing, information retrieval, knowledge representation, automated reasoning, and machine learning technologies to the field of open domain question answering.
The key difference between QA technology and document search is that document search takes a keyword query and returns a list of documents, ranked in order of relevance to the query (often based on popularity and page ranking), while QA technology takes a question expressed in natural language, seeks to understand it in much greater detail, and returns a precise answer to the question.
According to IBM, “more than 100 different techniques are used to analyze natural language, identify sources, find and generate hypotheses, find and score evidence, and merge and rank hypotheses.”
Is that thinking? Stanley Fish offered this view:
Far from being the paradigm of intelligence, therefore, mere matching with no sense of mattering or relevance is barely any kind of intelligence at all. As beings for whom the world already matters, our central human ability is to be able to see what matters when.
So, in short, IBM is offering an expensive tool that might help corporate executives troll through lots of data and try to divine commercially relevant strategies. It suggests that, “When your business thinks, you can outthink” the competition.
|IBM five-year stock price summary|
I guess the proof of the pudding is whether this approach can be applied to IBM itself. What I see instead is a behemoth of a corporation, with tens of thousands of employees spread across the world unfocused in purpose and execution, stagnant in the capital markets–with thirteen straight quarters of decline in revenues. The company is an exemplar of brute force decision-making, being outflanked left and right by more nimble players in the marketplace. The additional value offered by Watson is unlikely to be attractive to industry leaders in other fields. The millions of dollars spent on the Times insert is, in my mind, just another example of ineffective corporate thinking. What’s the audience, and how is the ad persuasive?
Back in the 1960’s, you could drop by the IBM building in New York City and pick up the iconic blue think desk sign seen above. I still have mine. I’m saving it for my daughters to take to Antiques Roadshow someday, where it might have some value as an a piece of industrial archeology.
Paul Levy is the former CEO of BIDMC and blogs at Not Running a Hospital, where an earlier version of this post appeared.