Return of the Guru

Watson-Type Automation: How Do I Get It?

Ara Trembly
Insurance Experts' Forum, February 24, 2011

In my last posting here, I talked about the recent Jeopardy beat down administered by Watson, an IBM-built expert knowledge computer, to two Jeopardy champions of recent years. IBM Global Insurance Industry Leader Jamie Bisker emphasized that the event was a demonstration of the increasing ability of computers to understand and work with natural language—an ability that would be useful in developing more advanced expert systems for insurance and financial services.

This caused me to wonder where an insurer or broker might get its hands on such technology, which would surely be a competitive advantage in terms of problem solving and product development. Unfortunately, such capability is not available off the shelf at your local computer outlet. According to Bisker, IBM is currently working on a Watson-style application for the medical field, which may be of interest to health insurers down the road.

“In three to five years we will be experimenting using our FOAK (first-of-a-kind) mechanism in insurance,” he says. IBM hopes to have a system that can provide text and other information on the fly to CSRs in an insurance call center based on what the computer hears from customers. Bisker points to current research in natural language interfaces being done at universities around the world. A Watson-type semantic engine, he notes, could provide small companies with information and responsiveness that are traditionally found only in larger companies, especially if the engine were cloud-based.

A Watson-style insurance system could helps claims reps who need immediate access to information in manuals to more quickly answer questions about history of accidents that are similar, adds Bisker. It could also “suggest” things to look into at the scene of an accident, based on the history of similar events.

While the technology holds much promise, however, the reality is that truly effective natural-language-based systems are still far away. To anyone who saw the Jeopardy competition, it appeared that Watson was responding to Alex Trebek’s “answers” as spoken. Actually, the “answers” had been pre-programmed electronically and were presented in that form to the computer at the same time as the human contestants heard them. So while some of us dreamed of a Star Trek-like computer that could actually respond to human speech, such was not the case here.

Another inhibiting factor on acquiring such a system was that Watson was far larger than a typical desktop appliance. In fact, it took up a whole server room at an IBM facility, meaning anyone who wanted to utilize such a system would have to have lots of spare room and lots of spare servers, not to mention lots of funding.

I agree that a Watson-like system for insurance would be a useful tool, but let’s temper our optimism with some practicality. We’re not going to be able to buy “Watson for Insurance” any time soon, but we can begin developing the expert systems capabilities that Watson promises right now. This must be a process that happens over time, however.

Another thought that occurred to me was how dangerous it could be for such a system to truly understand human speech. Say we programmed our system to defend itself against any intrusions or threats, which seems logical. What happens if some frustrated technician walks by and says, “I’d like to blow up that *&^%$# computer!” within earshot of our expert system?

I know. I’ve probably been watching too many science fiction movies.

Ara C. Trembly ( is the founder of Ara Trembly, The Tech Consultant, and a longtime observer of technology in insurance and financial services.

Readers are encouraged to respond to Ara using the “Add Your Comments” box below. He can also be reached at

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Comments (2)

I have the impression that something like Watson for insurance will take much more than 3 to 5 years. However, there is no reason to wait for it without doing anything. We could, for example, structure information much more and develop simpler software that can be used right now. Something that can be used on a PC, tablet or simple internet server. Dreaming of a Watson for insurance has the danger that when it arrives, in case it does, nobody can guarantee that insurance does still exist as a business.

Posted by: Jose M G | November 6, 2011 8:56 AM

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Thanks again to the Gentle Blogger for asking the questions that help to clarify what a question answering system like Watson might do for the insurance industry. As I mentioned in my response to the first post about Watson, one of the key things to understand about Watson is that it was working with basically unstructured data. The clues were rarely straightforward and the massive amount of data through which the system crawled (okay, processing speeds that could approach 80 trillion floating point operations per second does not evoke the term 'crawled,' but I was going for more of the Web type crawling - would Watson have caught that...?) only had the English language for structure. This points to a sea-change in user interfaces.
As the author mentioned, the Watson research team is currently working with the Columbia University Medical Center on a question answering system that would be a physician's assistant. This would be of interest to health insurers as it would likely lead to much higher accuracy and consistency in diagnosis, dosing, and prescriptions when such systems were used by physicians. The idea is that a Watson-type doctor's assistant would be like having a group of widely read, experienced physicians walking around with your doctor. They would be available to answer the simplest or most critical questions quickly while giving a confidence level and all the sources they used when chiming in with an observation or an instruction.
In the less critical world of insurance, the assistant paradigm could be extended to interactions with insureds, 3rd party claimants, and service providers with similar levels of fast, accurate and useful information when called upon.
As to Ara's supposition that useable Watson-type systems are far away, meaning not likely to be offered anytime soon, I have to stop and cogitate. Since he confined his remarks to the field of natural language, I will do the same with my response, but that will have to be in Part 2 - I need time to do that cogitation.

Jamie Bisker

Posted by: jbisker | March 1, 2011 6:21 AM

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