Watson, the powerful computer that rose to fame as a Jeopardy! contestant in 2011, has proved remarkably versatile since then. After a stint fighting cancer, Watson will soon be taking on the less glamorous role of a customer service representative. Forbes writes that over the next several months, IBM will give companies like Nielsen and Australia's ANZ Bank access to a new tool called "Ask Watson." The system will let customers speak directly to Watson through instant message, SMS, email, or a dedicated app, getting answers to questions that would otherwise have been answered by a human operator. Smartphone apps are planned for the second half of this year, and Watson could eventually also get Siri-like voice recognition.

"Watson pulls up stuff that an agent wouldn't because it is looking for semantic links."

Ask Watson is currently in beta with a limited number of companies, each of which will come up with its own interface for the core system and apply it to common issues. At ANZ, for instance, Watson will help parse insurance plans, telling customers where they might be missing protection or be overcovered based on analysis of the fine print. It could also help investment advisors by automatically comparing the bank's offerings with a customer's financial options. At Nielsen, Watson will help advise the people responsible for buying ads based on its ratings, letting them ask questions about the metrics or advising them on how much to buy in each platform (like TV, internet, or print) to meet their goals.

Eventually, IBM hopes that Watson could be used for a wide range of services, from banking to travel booking to answering basic customer questions in a more personalized way. In some cases, the planned uses sound a lot like the ones served by current automated systems: "How many gigabytes do I have left on my mobile plan?", for instance, is given as an example. Other questions could probably be answered by a good FAQ section. And the system remains untested by a broad consumer audience. But IBM says that Watson's strength is its ability to go beyond simple search terms. "Watson pulls up stuff that an agent wouldn't because it is looking for semantic links," says Watson general manager Manoj Saxena, "not just doing text-matching based on keywords."