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Watson - The digital C-Suite adviser

The MIT Technology Review recently ran an article describing experiments being conducted by IBM researchers with an idea for a room where executives can go to talk over business problems with a version of Watson, the computer system that defeated two Jeopardy! champions on TV in 2012.  

IBM's Cognitive Environments Laboratory

IBM's Cognitive Environments Laboratory

This is more than just an idea.  The article (link here) describes a working prototype and outlines an example of how Watson might in the not-too-distant future be an active participant in board room and executive meetings.  

In the demonstration, Watson is given a document to absorb describing the company's strategy and, having listened to the conversation of executives at the meeting, is then asked to identify a list of potential acquisition targets consistent with the strategy.  Watson returns a list almost immediately and, after further discussion among meeting participants, is then asked to make a suggestion as to which they should pursue.

The task of developing a list of potential acquisition targets, assessing them, making recommendations and spending time with executives helping them understand their options etc. is something that's typically turned over to investment bankers, strategy consultants, deals advisers or perhaps the internal strategy and corporate development group.  

That takes time and costs money.   Not so with Watson.  And it's not hard to imagine a long list of other advisory roles well suited to Watson's cognitive computing capabilities - financial and accounting advice, risk identification and mitigation advice, legal advice, operations and process improvement diagnostics and advice etc.

Remember it's still very early days for Watson and artificial intelligence.  IBM see Watson and the cognitive computing platform as a core pillar of their future and they're backing it with massive investments.  Other major players such as Google also have artificial intelligence and digital assistants front and centre in their plans for the future and are similarly pouring enormous amounts of energy into lifting the bar in terms of what's possible.

You'll see lots of references to Watson on this blog.  That's because it's a great example of a technology with the potential to be enormously disruptive, particularly to people whose business is based on giving advice.  Before the advent of the web the business model for professional advisers was built on a combination of privileged access to information and the ability to interpret and that information and turn it into bespoke advice for an individual person or organisation.  

The web is progressively eroding privileged access to information and, till now, has led professional advisers increasingly to seek sanctuary in the more complex "advice-oriented" end of the business.  These latest developments with Watson are a great example of how the "advice oriented" end of the value spectrum may also soon be eroded away.  

Perhaps platforms like Watson will simply augment, rather than replace, the professional adviser.  There's a real risk though that it will in fact turn out to be a substitute for large elements of the work currently done by professional advisers.  Whereas the higher value advisory end provided some sanctuary following the emergence of the web, it's not clear to me that there is another place for the professions (consulting, law, accounting etc.) to go to this time around.  Moreover, my experience is that very few have really stopped to contemplate the implications of systems like Watson or aware of how large or urgent the challenge really is.

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