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Advances in technologies such as artificial intelligence, robotics, nanotechnology and biotechnology have the potential to disrupt the rules of the game for every industry.

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Doctor Watson

This article was first published on 26 February 2013.

Ever since IBM’s Watson defeated the two most successful champions on the TV game show Jeopardy, there has been a steady stream of stories regarding IBM’s intention to apply Watson to solving important real-world problems.  The initial focus has been on efforts to apply Watson in medicine.  This story from the Economist contains the most recent update on progress and reaffirms IBM’s commitment to further developing Watson’s capabilities.

I’ve written previously that the emergence of Watson is a “big deal”.  While the initial focus of developmental work with Watson is on medicine, IBM signaled long ago their intention to also apply the technology in areas such as finance and call centers

There’s no doubt in my mind that Watson, together with other forms of artificial intelligence, will radically transform and disrupt a wide range of industries.  I suspect that many will be taken completely by surprise and say they “didn’t see it coming”.

The reality, however, is that we’re no longer talking about “weak signals” in relation to the march of artificial intelligence.  The signals are in fact increasingly strong and Watson’s emergence, and IBM’s progress with it since its historic win in jeopardy should have anyone running a conventional knowledge-based industry or profession seriously reassessing the future of their industry.

The real threat is summed up in the final line of the Economist article which reads “For although no one is claiming that Watson can replace human medics, it is another instance (alongside legal work and journalism) of computers encroaching into the sorts of white-collar jobs previously thought to be the preserve of two-legged biological computers.”

And therein lies the issue – namely, our assumption that most knowledge-based, white-collar jobs are fundamentally the preserve of humans because what we do is somehow too complex or too creative or too much like black magic for a machine to ever be able to replicate, let alone do better.

If you’re a CEO, strategist or senior leader to any firm where a significant portion of your value proposition is based on human-centred knowledge work then you need to be watching Watson’s development very closely.

Read the full article in the Economist (link below) to learn more and check out an earlier piece I wrote on Watson to get a richer sense for some of the issues (IBM’s Watson joins research team at RPI)

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