Tech Insights: Watson’s Next Big Step? It Could Be in HR

Sep 30, 2014

IBM picked Fang from Majestyk as a winning app for the mobile application of Watson.

This caught my attention because Fang is an education app. It is aimed at young children, but to my way of thinking, it is not a big leap from educating young children to developing senior leaders.

The essence of what Watson does is match a natural language interface to a large set of data. This is what we saw in the Jeopardy! application of Watson. Fang’s interface is not a screen but a plush toy, and thanks to Watson, kids can ask “Why is the sky blue?” and get an answer.

A plush toy device for managing people?

In Fang’s case, the data set is Wikipedia and so you’re right to think that Fang won’t teach kids anything they couldn’t learn by going online and doing a search. However, if you have ever seen kids entranced by Apple’s Siri then you’ll know there is something magic in a natural language interface.

And if you are waiting for a streetcar in Toronto you know you can text a code to find out when the next one will arrive, but it’s far cooler just to ask Google Voice “When’s the next streetcar?

Fang is a plush toy with some intelligence, a plush toy you can talk to, a plush toy that knows quite a lot. Is it really that far away when we will have a Fang-like device for leaders to talk through tactics for managing people?

We are almost certain to see apps with some usefulness in five years. In 10 years they will probably be pretty good for many things, and in 20, well, 20 years ago most people hadn’t even heard of the Internet, so predicting where Watson-powered apps will be in 20 years is just wild speculation.

What’s interesting?

  • The idea of a computer winning Jeopardy! seems like science fiction. Even while we are trying to digest that, the technology is moving into our teddy bears.
  • Spoken natural language is a magical kind of interface, even if on the surface doing an online query seems just as easy.

What’s really important?

  • Managers don’t really need Watson to connect them to Wikipedia, but imagine if Watson were linking them to Quora (where interesting people answer difficult questions). We may be in sight of a world where managers can have a useful conversation with a machine about a topic like “How can I tell if this candidate will be a good fit for my team?”
  • HR vendors need to be aware of how fast this technology is moving. Before we get to the really astounding uses of Watson, we’ll find simpler uses but ones that give a vendor a real edge in the marketplace. Tickle me Elmo looks pretty pale next to Fang; will your HR tech face the same daunting comparison?