Conference Panel: IBM’s Watson and the Rise of Analytics

Irving Wladawsky-Berger By Eric Smalley
October 14, 2011

When IBM’s Watson supercomputer bested the top two human competitors in a widely viewed bout of the Jeopardy TV game show in January, many observers saw an example of technology displacing people. Irving Wladawsky-Berger, however, saw the dawning of an age when powerful analytical tools like Watson will augment virtually every facet of human intellectual endeavor.

Wladawsky-Berger, vice president emeritus at IBM and a visiting lecturer in the Sloan School of Management and MIT’s Engineering Systems Division (ESD), is scheduled to lead a panel discussion on information analytics at the 2011 MIT SDM Conference on Systems Thinking for Contemporary Challenges this month. The discussion, titled "IBM’s Watson, Analytics, and the Implications for Industry and Society," will explore the impact such highly advanced tools are likely to have on a range of disciplines, including healthcare, finance, and education.

In the last few years we have seen incredible advances in information analytics, which involve processing large amounts of information with sophisticated algorithms running on powerful supercomputers, said Wladawsky-Berger. "The implications of having these powerful new analytic tools are really deep, and they go everywhere," he said.

When any powerful new technology arises, the key questions are how people use it and how it changes what people do, said Wladawsky-Berger. "How can we leverage these incredible advances in technology for business value, to raise the standard of living and the quality of life in our societies, to empower individuals so they can do a better job?"

These tools can have a big impact in healthcare. "Capture the world’s top medical centers’ expertise and distribute it via tools like Watson to a large number of physicians and healthcare workers, and you can significantly improve the overall quality of healthcare," said Wladawsky-Berger.

Katharine Frase, vice president of Industry Solutions and Emerging Business at IBM Research, will begin the panel discussion with an overview of Watson, including its application in healthcare.

Visiting ESD scholar David Hartzband will talk about advanced analytic tools in healthcare. Hartzband has a long history in academia and industry. His current work focuses on healthcare information technology.

SDM alumnus Doug Hague, small business analytics executive in Consumer and Small Business Banking at Bank of America, will talk about advanced analytic tools in finance. Hague leads a team that analyzes business performance, client behaviors, and strategic initiatives.

Financial services companies have long had an interest in analytic tools. "Risk management, identity management, security, those are all incredibly important questions to the world of finance," said Wladawsky-Berger.

Building these complex tools, not surprisingly, requires systems thinking. "The only way this can truly work is to take a holistic view of the problems we’re trying to attack," he said.

Building these tools is as much about people as technology, concluded Wladawsky-Berger. "A lot of the design is about the interplay between the technology and the people who use it. What kinds of technologies and capabilities are the most useful? What kinds of tools would help [people] do a much better job?"

Irving Wladawsky-Berger