First Click: IBM's Watson is too elementary

December 1st, 2015

What do you think of when you hear the letters I B M. Maybe you think Big Blue, the arch nemesis of Steve Jobs at the dawn of the PC revolution. Or maybe you think pads, as in ThinkPads, before the company sold its hardware business to Lenovo. That was all a long time ago for a company that Reuters recently described as “largely a computer services supplier.”

Facebook, Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, and Google all have the luxury of owning consumer-facing platforms on which they can demonstrate their AI capabilities. A luxury IBM no longer has.

IBM’s in the middle of a reboot and seems to have found a new face for the company in Watson, the natural language computing system developed specifically to compete against humans on Jeopardy!. A task it completed with aplomb in 2011 when it beat two of the game show’s greatest champions. The win represented a milestone in human vs. computer challenges, and the biggest advancement since IBM’s Deep Blue beat Garry Kasparov in chess in 1997.

Since the televised victory over Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter, Watson has morphed into something quite a bit more than a parlor trick. IBM is trying to capitalize on the global attention it received by making Watson a catch-all brand for the company’s artificial intelligence, and its ability to make sense out of the world’s data in industries like health care, financial services, and education. IBM rolls out the Watson persona when it makes holiday predictions, announces a new cookbook, or tries to enhance the fan experience of the Pittsburgh Penguins. Pretty much any chance it gets.

Problem is, IBM’s a company that has earned five Nobel Prizes and six Turing awards over its 104 years. It solves serious problems for serious people. So why is the face of the company slowly morphing into a spiky-haired logo best described as "cartoonish," and adapted for a computer best known for winning a game show?

Trying to exploit the Watson image so loved in 2011 is akin to the quiz-kid Donnie Smith character from Magnolia hoping that adult-braces will make people love him again as they did when he was a young champion. But they won't, the effort is sad and too transparent.

IBM deserves a more sophisticated face.

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