IBM Introduces Watson Assistant, A Customizable Voice Assistant for the Enterprise
IBM today is revealing the new Watson Assistant, a product it has been working on for the past year with a number of enterprise clients. It will be marketed as a “smart enterprise assistant that brings together artificial intelligence (AI), cloud and Internet of Things (IoT)” that is customizable and secure. Kareem Yusef, general manager of Watson Internet of things for IBM, commented in a blog post this morning:
Over the last few years, digital assistants have cemented their place in our homes, helping execute routine day-to-day tasks, from turning on our televisions to telling us about ‘this day in history.’ But these devices have also accomplished something else, they have laid the groundwork for what’s next: truly intelligent AI assistants that get to know you.
An Assistant for Enterprises to Interact with Consumers
You might be confused by IBM’s positioning of Watson Assistant as an enterprise solution and then viewing all of the marketing materials which depict consumer use cases. Watson has long been embedded within enterprises for enterprise users in healthcare, HR and cybersecurity. Watson Assistant is different. It is designed for enterprises to use with their customer-facing applications. The video below shows a number of these use cases that make the Watson Assistant infused I-VIE from Chameleon Technology seem more like Alexa than Iron Man’s J.A.R.V.I.S.
The idea is clearly that enterprises don’t have to turn over their customer relationships to Amazon and Google. They can use Watson Assistant to build direct connections with consumers and develop customized experiences. HARMAN International will demonstrate a Watson Assistant-enabled car infotainment system today at IBM’s THINK conference. IBM says that Airwire, Munich Airport, Kaon Media and Royal Bank of Scotland also have Watson Assistant projects underway.
The Rise of the Independents
This isn’t Watson’s first foray into consumer-like use cases. Although it was clearly targeted at office users, Staples’ integration of Watson with its famous Easy Button in October 2016 showed that the voice assistant could tackle simpler processes than reading medical images. It was called the Staples’ Easy System. The use cases profiled by Chameleon Technologies and HARMAN take this to a new level. It is not clear when, or if, any of these capabilities will be available to consumers. However, it does show a path to voice assistants that do not rely on solutions from Amazon, Google, Apple or Microsoft.
This is the market that SoundHound is targeting with its Hound voice assistant. At CES, the Hound Assistant was on display in Hyundai cars. A key emphasis of Hound’s market positioning is that it is independent of the big technology platforms and enables enterprises to customize consumer experiences and own their customer data. Hound is not alone with this positioning. The open source Mycroft makes a similar pitch and goes a step further to enable all data processing locally on the device to maximize security.
However, the big independent platform for a customizable voice assistant is Nuance. Nuance in many ways created the market for enterprise voice assistants and has thousands of implementations globally. The company’s Dragon Drive solution previewed at CES 2018 is the type of in-car feature set you will expect HARMAN to attempt to replicate with Watson Assistant.
What each of these examples reinforce is that while Alexa and Google Assistant have momentum with consumer use cases, enterprises have strong interest in having more control over the customer experience and data. For this market, IBM is really taking on Nuance more than Amazon or Google, at least for now. Amazon did introduce Alexa for Business in December 2017 and has its sights beyond kitchens and bedrooms to include cubicles and boardrooms. The battle for enterprise assistant market share is shaping up to be every bit as competitive as the current war for consumer voice assistant users.