Stop The Hype: The Real Value Of IBM Watson Is Driving Small, Incremental Business Changes

IBM wants you to associate its Watson technology with solving world hunger or uncovering a cure for cancer. Or, if you must, with winning Jeopardy. But even startups are now putting Watson to far more pedestrian uses, as Shimmy Technologies is doing, using Watson's AI to create customized swimsuits (and inform its swimsuit-wearing customers when to apply sunscreen).

More about Artificial Intelligence

If that sounds too simplistic, it's actually closer to the real magic of AI platforms like Watson: Helping make incremental improvements in our daily lives. IBM's Watson is an open artificial intelligence platform that IBM developed to apply advanced natural language processing, information retrieval, knowledge representation, automated reasoning, and machine learning technologies to speech, vision, language, conversation, discovery and empathy. Having conquered TV quiz shows, IBM makes money on Watson by offering solutions and applications for a range of industries to gain insights from unstructured data.

That's the big vision, and it evokes all the mysticism of discovering cancer-fighting drugs and such. But, as noted, the real promise of AI is far more mundane, and should be as available to a startup entrepreneur as a cash-rich Fortune 500 CTO. To prove this point, I spoke with Shimmy Technologies CEO Sarah Krasley,at her 84,000-square foot former shipbuilding factory in the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

Shaping the future

Though the apparel industry has recently clued into the promise of technology to enable fast fashion, it's still a somewhat slow-moving, gut-driven industry. Shimmy's goal is to help the apparel industry embrace automation and use artificial intelligence to speed things up and put people in clothes that actually fit them.

Shimmy focuses on swimwear, but the idea for the company actually came from Krasley during her undergraduate studies while watching an industrial engineer shape the hood of a car. If AI could help in this way, why not apply the approach to other types of bodies, like human bodies? From there, she grew interested in apparel and body image and ended up with a custom swimwear line that uses 3D technology and eschews the mass production model that makes so much of our clothing.

SEE: IT leader's guide to the future of artificial intelligence (Tech Pro Research)

Even so, she still lacked an AI platform upon which to build her ideas. Enter Watson.

Dr. Watson, can I get a panacea for that?

IBM positions Watson as a save-the-planet sort of groundbreaking technology, and is now getting swatted for such grandiose claims (see also here and here). It's unfortunate because Watson doesn't need to cure cancer to be hugely useful, something that entrepreneurs like Krasley are starting to figure out. Krasley decided to use the Watson Speech to Text feature with "recognizeMicrophone" to allow customers to speak their measurements and convert them into a format Shimmy could use in CAD. They also used IBM's weather API to help customers know when to re-apply sunscreen.

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