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CITIZEN COLUMN: NOT Sherlock Holmes’ Watson

CITIZEN COLUMN: NOT Sherlock Holmes’ Watson

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Who do you know who is an expert at chess, speed reads, has a photographic memory, understands, reads and speaks many languages, has libraries of information at his fingertips, knows medicine, can read X-rays, can “data mine” customer data bases, can play and design music, can design dresses, can teach students and finally can always win at “Jeopardy”?

Of course, my loving wife would say “Steve,” but no, no, Steve must most humbly protest. …

Because it’s IBM Watson.

The IBM corporation was founded in 1911 in Endicott, New York, along the Pennsylvania border, as the Computing Tabulating Company, becoming International Business Machines in 1924 and then IBM in 1933. Its headquarters are now in Armonk, New York.

It operates in more than 170 countries with storied success. The original company brought together four existing businesses in the commercial scales, dial recording, electric tabulating machine, and the time clock space to produce and sell sophisticated, for the era, tabulating machines.

The company went viral in 1914 with the hiring of Thomas J. Watson, then recently fired from the National Cash Register Company (NCR). In a short time, Watson, an organizational and management genius, took IBM to commercial and international success (it started out in 1911 already in Canada). In only four years, revenues hit an astonishing $9 million. Even with mechanical machines, IBM became a data collecting business, using specially designed stiff paper cards. (When I was a programmer in the 1960s, we still used a form of these cards, this time “key punched” with computer language code that we carried around in huge IBM boxes).

Government and Big Business around the world became customers. Thomas Watson focused on high salesmen commissions, uniform, neat dress (he called the employees “IBM’ers”), customer service and employee-company loyalty and passion. At one time Ross Perot, in 1962 the founder of Electronic Data Systems and Perot Systems, was IBM’s highest paid salesman.

In 1956 IBM began moving into the new “computer” space, and as they say … “the rest is history.”

It is ironic that IBM was the original home for what we now call the “personal computer,” turning down opportunity that IBM either sold for cheap or gave away to Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and the Lenovo Company. Instead, IBM became famous for FORTRAN, the 704 machine, the 360 machine, the Selectric Typewriter (not expected, but the real foundation for the personal computer), the modern plastic magnetic credit card, the 370 machine, see above for the IBM PC, Lexmark printers, the Bar Code (originally called the Universal Product Code), the Linux Operating System and, interestingly, the idea of financial futures and financial swaps.

In the 1990s, IBM hit a slump and brought in from the outside Lou Gerstner from RJR Nabisco. He successfully steered IBM into Super Computing and computer-data-artificial intelligence consulting (with IBM buying PwC Consulting, SPSS, The Weather Company and Red Hat (Red Hat had some local Florence personnel connections and several early investors were among the Florence elite.) Today, IBM has approximately $77 billion of annual revenue and an estimated $13 billion of annual income. So-called consulting has become its modern, major service line. The company also holds more than 140,000 patents around the world with products listed above but also including the ATM, floppy disks, the hard disk drive and computer memory systems.

Super computers are so-called not only for their physical size but mostly for their amazing transactions speed: a staggering hundred quadrillion floating-point operations per second (that’s 10 to the 15th power!).

American Seymour Cray, coming out of Naval military computer research, working with Control Data Corporation and using William Norris money, and later his own money and Wall Street’s, developed the first super computers in the early 1960s, later in the 1970s, selling them as Cray Computers with several corporate names.

He basically improved computer cooling systems, materials and designs to maximize speed and reduce heat; he came up with the idea of hundreds of “mini-computers” working together, probably his most important idea.

Today China, the EU, Taiwan and Japan all build and research super computers. The United States and Japan now lead the field. Modern super computers are almost impossible to describe. They use advanced cooling systems, massively parallel computing power and innovative circuits that are now special materials or micro magnetic fields or gasses/liquids, no longer chips and connectors; most now use Boolean, Torus or Array mathematics rather than the old “on-off” mathematics. Interestingly, most use the Linux Operating System (originally from IBM).

And such is our New Watson.

Following after IBM’s “Deep Blue,” which beat Garry Kasparov in a famous 1997 chess match, Watson was really first developed to showcase, to give publicity to IBM computing prowess and to develop artificial intelligence sophisticated enough to play a human word game, “Jeopardy.” The effort began in 2004, led by Charles Lickel, David Ferrucci, Paul Horn, John Rennie, Tony Pearson and John Kelly working with the Thomas J. Watson Research Center, other IBM research labs and other non-IBM’ers from universities all across the United States. Watson is a massively parallel supercomputer, using IBM Power7 processors, cores and Random Access Memory. It can process 500 gigabytes per second (millions of documents per second). Watson uses IBM's DeepQA software and the Apache UIMA (Unstructured Information Management Architecture) framework implementation. The system was written in various languages, including Java, C++ and Prolog, and runs on the SUSE Linux Enterprise Server 11 operating system using the Apache Hadoop framework to provide distributed computing (the last two sentences quoted from Wikipedia).

The first “Jeopardy” match was played in early 2011 as a practice match. The DeepQA software allows Watson to understand multiple languages and give back accurate questions to any answers. Watson played several special “Jeopardy” matches in 2011 against then “Jeopardy” champions Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter. In the end Watson triumphed winning first place with Jennings in second and Rutter in third. IBM donated Watson’s winning purse of $1 million to World Vision and the World Community Grid.

In 2014, IBM developed a business group around the Watson machine. These business lines go all the way from nuclear research, weather, data mining, the Cloud, to health care. A supercomputer that can listen, talk and answer questions in real, human time, in almost any language, in almost human logic, think of the busines opportunities! Amazing.

On Oct. 16, 2017 Forbes Magazine printed an article titled “AMA Partners with IBM Watson and Cerner on Health Data Model.” Cerner Health is a health care data collection and mining business in the health care consulting space. Three years ago, I was in an audience with approximately 50 AMA leadership and the IBM Watson Business Group. They showed a film clip of a hypothetical patient with known asthma, awaking mid-dreams with a coughing spell; the bedroom was equipped with a Watson internet connection akin to “Alexa.” Watson took some basic info, vital signs, a lung measurement and diagnosed an asthma spell. Then Watson used the home’s 3D printer to print out an asthma rescue inhaler and some prednisone and Montelukast tablets for asthma treatment, all in about 5 minutes or so.

Well, after being impressed, I raised by hand to ask: “This new Watson health care will provide jobs and revenue to IBM, to computer programmers, to computer spirogram companies, to computer repair folks, to 3D printer companies and to drug companies, but what about the medical health care space? Who will pay or employ the doctors and nurses, invisible in this vignette?”

After a polite pause, at first a few frowns (for my audacity or rudeness), then a few smiles, but no answers. … And so, it goes.

But even so, I just love this new Watson.

Dr. Stephen Imbeau and his wife Shirley moved from Wisconsin to Florence on March 1, 1980. In 1996, he and Dr. Joseph Moyer opened the Allergy Asthma and Sinus Center, now one of the largest allergy practices in South Carolina. You can reach him at

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