Watson Says ‘Hola’ as Jeopardy Champ Gets Language Skills

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“Hola, me llamo Watson.”

That’s the introduction IBM’s Spanish-speaking customers will soon be able to receive from the company’s Watson analytics service -- a big-data tool that crunches vast amounts of information and answers questions in a conversational tone.

To help commercialize the technology famous for beating humans on the “Jeopardy!” game show, new languages such as Portuguese and Japanese are being added to the service this year, said Stephen Gold, vice president of the Watson Group business.

Ginni Rometty, chief executive officer of International Business Machines Corp., is focusing on faster-growing segments, like data analytics, amid a slump in demand for hardware. She officially opened IBM’s Watson Group headquarters in New York today in a further effort to raise the profile of the technology. After initially working with select clients, IBM last month began marketing Watson to rank and file workers across industries.

“What’s changed is the technology has become very tangible and very real to you and I,” Gold said in an interview.

The ability of Watson to converse in Spanish is a product of a service that IBM’s engineers created for CaixaBank SA, Spain’s third-biggest lender, Gold said. The Barcelona-based bank wanted its advisers to be able to ask Watson questions in Spanish to help counsel customers, he said.

“Clients came out and said, ‘English is good, we can work with that -- our native language would be better,’” Gold said.

Banking Clients

CaixaBank joins other banking clients IBM has lured with Watson. Earlier this year, it announced a deal with DBS Group Holdings Ltd. whereby the Singapore-based bank will use the tool to aid financial planners in guiding their affluent customers.

IBM is working with SoftBank Corp. to enable the tool to read and process information in Japanese, Mike Rhodin, senior vice president of the Watson Group, said at the opening of the division’s headquarters today.

IBM has also targeted health-care and education clients. In a statement yesterday, the company announced new Watson contracts, including with Thailand’s Bumrungrad Hospital Pcl that will use Watson to assist doctors in selecting patient treatments, and with Deakin University in Australia, where the technology will be used to develop an online service that answers questions about the school.

Watson Applications

The technology company also disclosed a raft of Watson-supported mobile applications, including one by LifeLearn Inc., which helps veterinarians research data for treatments on pets.

IBM, based in Armonk, New York, has been promoting the different uses for Watson after investing about $1 billion to create a new business unit centered on the technology. While Watson has become a key marketing tool, the company has declined to disclose revenue results or projections for the unit.

As well as housing Watson staff, the New York headquarters will serve as a hub for potential customers where they can watch videos on how Watson works in an “immersion room,” Gold said.

Five other centers in locations around the globe will provide a similar service to attract business.

“Watson is the beginning of a whole series” of new technology, Rometty said at Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Summit yesterday. “You don’t program them. They learn and they reason and they will, in my mind, redefine the relationship between man and machine.”