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The plan behind Watson: winning hearts

Marketers put public face — er, screen — on technology before rollout

Watson took on “Jeopardy!’’ champions Ken Jennings (center) and Brad Rutter (right), winning two of its three games and the $1 million prize. The contestants are shown with host Alex Trebek. Watson took on “Jeopardy!’’ champions Ken Jennings (center) and Brad Rutter (right), winning two of its three games and the $1 million prize. The contestants are shown with host Alex Trebek. (Jeopardy Productions via Associated Press)
By Johnny Diaz
Globe Staff / February 26, 2011

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The Watson intelligent computer system from IBM Corp. was a triumph, and not just because it trounced two human champions in the TV game show “Jeopardy!’’ Watson also scored a massive marketing coup: It became a celebrity and household name, and set the stage for new commercial products based on the smart machine.

Both wins were by careful design. On the day after Watson’s last Jeopardy!’’ game, IBM and speech recognition software maker Nuance Communications Inc. in Burlington revealed that they had partnered to produce a medical version of the computer system for the health care industry. The idea is to use the Watson combination of speech recognition, superfast processing, and a massive database to help doctors and nurses, who will enhance their diagnoses of patients by talking to the machine.

Media analysts said that a marketing strategy built on Watson’s new celebrity, which was boosted by the appearances on “Jeopardy!’’ and in a PBS documentary, paved the way to sell the technology.

“By putting Watson on ‘Jeopardy!’, it humanizes the technology,’’ said Geoff Klapisch, a Boston University marketing professor. “It easily demonstrates what it can do, and goes beyond the traditional route of introducing a service to a niche market.’’

Robert Thompson, professor of television and popular culture at Syracuse University, called the Watson rollout “a brilliant marketing ploy both on the part of the manufacturer and the part of ‘Jeopardy!’ . . . This is better than a Super Bowl commercial.’’

And it garnered a huge audience. Ratings swelled for “Jeopardy!’’ during the Watson appearances. Locally, the syndicated game show almost doubled its lead over a competitor, WCVB’s “Chronicle.’’

Nuance officials said the computer system was a gifted spokesmachine.

“Watson has sparked the imaginations of those not just in the technology industry, but for an array of industries around the globe,’’ said Nuance vice president of corporate communications Richard Mack, in a statement.

Watson, named for IBM founder Thomas J. Watson, was created by a team of 25 scientists over four years. Researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Massachusetts-Amherst were among those who helped to develop Watson’s technology. The computing system is described as having a “brain’’ the size of 2,400 home computers, and a database of 10 million documents.

Watson had historical precedent: another IBM company computer, called Deep Blue, which defeated world champion Garry Kasparov in chess in 1997.

The Watson system was designed to compete with a human’s ability to answer questions posed in natural language with accuracy and speed. The “Jeopardy!’’ game show’s quiz format requires analyzing meaning, riddles, and humor — a good test for Watson’s uncanny abilities.

“Clearly, this was something that was going to be a departure for us,’’ said Harry Friedman, executive producer of “Jeopardy!’’

“We didn’t want it to be considered a tournament or a regular competition. We presented it as an exhibition of this breakthrough technology.’’

“Jeopardy!’’ executives, including Friedman, visited IBM to audition Watson as a contestant. A makeshift studio was built so Watson could compete in a trial game against two former “Jeopardy!’’ contestants. Producers worked with IBM to test Watson and fix technical bugs.

The PBS documentary television series “NOVA’’ was also there, chronicling Watson’s odyssey to “Jeopardy!’’ for a segment called “Smartest Machine on Earth,’’ which aired the week before the computer’s debut on the game show.

The PBS show, known for its in-depth science reporting, gave IBM another prominent platform to showcase the technology. However, Michael Bicks, director and producer of the “NOVA’’ piece on Watson’s journey to “Jeopardy!’’, said the program was not a participant in any marketing strategy. Watson was simply “a great science story,’’ he said.

“Very rarely do you get to see a major scientific advancement carried out in pop culture, except for Deep Blue,’’ said Bicks, who became interested in Watson more than a year ago, after hearing about the project from a professor at Carnegie Mellon University.

Although Bicks was surprised that a commercial product based on Watson was announced so soon, he called the computer system “a scientific breakthrough that has the potential to change the way that we live.’’

Watson technology will allow Nuance to add artificial intelligence to its mix of speech-recognition and related products. The first commercial offerings are expected in 18 to 24 months.

“ ‘NOVA’s’ audience potentially has a higher percentage of people who might be decision-makers in this area,’’ said Syracuse University’s Thompson. “When you start your presentations and start selling this thing, the fact that there is a ‘NOVA’ episode out there is important in and of itself.’’

Watson’s three “Jeopardy!’’ episodes were taped Jan. 14, Friedman said. Watson’s competitors were long-time “Jeopardy!’’ winners Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter. The machine won two of its three games, taking the $1 million prize.

Friedman, the show’s producer, said Watson’s appearance helped the show appeal to new viewers and recapture old fans, as well as ignite discussion about this new technology.

“It’s thrilling. It’s fascinating . . . it’s eye-opening and it’s a lot of fun to see and hear about the debate and the discussion that is being generated by this,’’ he said.

Johnny Diaz can be reached at jodiaz@globe.com.