Imagining the Possibilities of Watson
Insurance Experts' Forum, January 17, 2014
A State Farm commercial that has been running over the past years demonstrates how its customer call center is open 24 hours a day, even at 3:00 in the morning. (Even though the caller's wife was highly suspicious of “Jake from State Farm,” in his khaki pants.)
The commercial illustrates how State Farm is achieving competitive advantage by having a 24x7 call center, ready to answer any and all questions thrown at it, even at 3:00 in the morning.
But what if an insurer could run a call center with no staff, but still capable on answering every conceivable question that was phoned or logged in? IBM's Watson supercomputer technology may be just about up to the task. And you don't even have to buy a Watson to get there — Watson's decision-management power is becoming available through the cloud.
That's the potential behind IBM's latest set of announcements behind its wundermachine, the Watson supercomputer, which is being spun off into a separate business unit called the IBM Watson Group. By some reports, the spinoff occurred because it has been so difficult to sell the technology from within Big Blue itself.
The supercomputer, which employs data analysis and natural language processing to review all possible answers to questions, already proved itself on Jeopardy back in 2011. Since then, its designers have launched initiatives in which the machine's processing capabilities can be put to solving medical riddles, or determining the best investment strategies.
The good news is that a company no longer needs to have Watson sitting in its server closet. IBM announced three new Watson services that will be delivered over the cloud. The first, Watson Discovery Advisor, is designed to accelerate and strengthen research and development projects in industries such as pharmaceutical, publishing and biotechnology. The second, Watson Analytics, delivers visualized big data insights, based on questions posed in natural language by any business user. The third offering, IBM Watson Explorer, helps users across an enterprise uncover and share data-driven insights more easily, while empowering organizations launch big data initiatives faster.
It's only a matter of time before such technology — whether its Watson or a close competitor — makes its way into the insurance industry. We already know that insurers are hungering for big data analytics, especially as they move deeper into strategies that employ data to drive new initiatives, from telematics to fraud detection to customer engagement. They're even allowing developers to write mobile apps to run against Watson in the background.
One such app, cited in the Wall Street Journal Report, would enable “consumers ask questions on a retailer's website, as they would with a sales associate in a store ... the app could help people to more easily find the products they need and prompt more sales.”
Imagine the possibilities for an insurance site, which would be able to provide instantaneous feedback to consumers' specific questions. We may even be crossing the line into automated decision management, which has been around in concept for a number of years now, but hasn't quite arrived on the scene yet.
Customers and agents could even engage in high-level discussions with a Watson-injected site about conduct underwriting, risk profiles and premiums. Of course, a human will need to double-check the policy limits that Watson assigns, but increasingly, in a 24x7 economy, insurers will be able to handle even the most complex cases, even at 3:00 in the morning. And yes, Watson may even be able to tell the caller's suspicious spouse what it is wearing. (Likely not khakis.)
Joe McKendrick is an author, consultant, blogger and frequent INN contributor specializing in information technology.
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