In the sweep of Giant Killer contests – Hollywood notwithstanding – it would be hard to imagine that humanity would come in second to a computer in the nuanced world of context, puns and trivia. So we have to give credit to the newest entry in the Killing Giants lexicon: Watson, from IBM.
Last night, the last bastion of humanity fell before the robopocalypse. Watson, the HAL-like, entity from IBM, defeated the two humanoid champions at Jeopardy, a game of trivia, nuance and context. Thankfully, the fateful Double Jeopardy words, “What is… kill all humans?” were never uttered. This, and this alone, is why we’re here to discuss the event’s impact.
Backing up to slightly more solid ground, what does this mean?
I’d quickly sum this up with two points on opposite sides of the social spectrum and will happily leave the AI implications for others more qualified to discuss them.
First, good news! Technology as a means to more sophisticated usefulness is not only coming, it seems to have just arrived. If we can automate context, we can expect more than Web MD on our smart phones – we can get House MD.
Second, the bad news! The same breakthroughs that put House on your iPhone mean we don’t need as many Houses in the future. This means the impending disenfranchisement of a lot of workers who are neither highly conceptual nor content creators. Some suggest Watson’s victory is a sign of the technological singularity, that point at which greater-than-human intelligence arises. They may be right.
What does this mean to marketers?
Beyond winning at Jeopardy, IBM has now found its face, voice and image again. IBM, a company once thought to be so strong that it would outlast the United States of America, and then relegated to marginal relevance, is culturally relevant again.
A quick story to animate this point: when I was at Plantronics, we were searching for that relevance prior to embarking on our first stab at consumer branding and advertising. We needed facts, not feelings, about what made this forty year old company worth talking about. The research focused on what was ownable, believable and relevant.
What we found was that common and archetypal attributes were the most relevant – “sound quality,” “durability,” and other easy to claim elements. But what shot off the chart was our “ownable”: Neil Armstrong walked on the moon wearing a Plantronics headset and said, “One small step for man…” into one of our products.
Our “Neil Armstrong” statement became the cornerstone of our advertising, our retail sales associate training, and all of our customer facing communication. We didn’t have to beat customers over the head with it. We could show it and not always tell it. But it surrounded our marketing and provided a positive, aspirational, can-do backdrop to the brand’s story.
Retail sales people may not have remembered much about our noise canceling microphone or our universal compatibility, but Armstrong proved sticky.
IBM has discovered its Neil Armstrong. Its name is Watson.
No matter who IBM faces in the market, the first thing that will be referenced is Watson. Whether their solutions ultimately are more attractive or appropriate is secondary – anyone in a buying position is going to be consciously or unconsciously using Watson as an anchor point.
Watson is the new frame of reference, the new anchor point for “thinking machines” and what they can do for you and your business.
Watson is the ultimate “ownable” statement for a brand, something no competitor could possibly claim similarity to or come close to matching.
So while the company can take pride in a job well done and continue to push beyond this new frontier of contextual computing, for the brand, the implications are even bigger: for IBM – and Watson – it’s a whole new game.