by George Nott

Government takes stock of IBM Watson’s future role

Jan 24, 2017
GovernmentGovernment ITInnovation

The Australian Government handles enormous amounts of data and needs to make sense of it, making it a burning hot lead for IBM Watson’s sales teams.

Federal agencies are potentially a perfect match for what Watson claims to offer: actionable insights from large amounts of unstructured data via natural language processing and machine learning. And as Big Blue’s “cognitive computing” platform becomes increasingly important to the company’s future – one of its so called “strategic imperatives” according to CEO Ginny Rometty – securing these government clients is critical.

Since 2015, a number of government bodies have trialled the products under the Watson umbrella, putting them to work across a range of applications from border protection to trade marks.

A number of those trials now complete, agencies are taking stock of Watson’s future in government. Here’s what they had to say.

Not proceeding at this stage

The Department of Immigration and Border Protection – the agency its CIO Randall Brugeaud once said was “taking a leading role in cognitive computing for the Australian government” – undertook an 11 month Limited User Trial of the Watson Discovery Advisor product in 2015.

At the time the department said it would use the Watson to analyse data drawn from sources including news feeds and government reports.

The department told CIO Australia that after trials concluded in April last year it had “decided not to proceed with any further trials of the Watson product at this stage”.

Considering the future direction

IP Australia, which administers Australia’s intellectual property rights system, undertook a 12 week Cognitive Value Assessment – an IBM program to help potential clients discover quick-win use cases – in 2015.

This trial led to a development of a proof of concept prototype that used Watson to identify if a potential trade mark was acceptable or not based on relevant case law.

Following this initial trial, the agency worked with IBM on an extension of the prototype for other trademark-related processes.

“This has now been completed and we are considering the future direction of these initiatives,” said Adrian Jacobs, acting general manager of IP Australia’s business transformation and ICT program RiO.

Although the trial had wrapped up, IP Australia “foresees that the Australian Public Service will be able to take advantage of the technology over the coming years” Jacobs added.

“With over 800,000 service requests made to IP Australia annually the agency is exploring new technologies to improve its service delivery in a highly regulated area,” he said.

Trials start soon

The National Disability Insurance Agency (NDIA), meanwhile, will start trialing an application of Watson within the next couple of months, according to a source close to the plans.

The NDIA hinted at its plan to use Watson in October 2015 after head of technology, Marie Johnson and Department of Human Services’ CTO, Charles McHardie travelled to the US to meet with IBM staff and gain access to advances in contextual and human machine interfaces and cognitive computing.

The NDIA intends to incorporate cognitive computing functions into a ‘fit for purpose’ platform that will support Australians with complex physical and intellectual disabilities under the $22 billion National Disability Insurance Scheme.

The source said a group of people with disabilities has been working with the agency to help guide the design of the platform.

“There’s also been wider involvement and consultation (with the community)…around what people with disabilities want and how can Watson support what they want,” the source said.

Delivered an improvement

In May it was revealed the Department of Defence had carried out trials of Watson around psychological operations.

Mohan Aiyaswami, the Australian Defence Force’s chief technology officer, said at the time the platform had been used for a proof of concept project involving ‘Target Audience Analysis’ (TAA), which involves analysing intelligence and selecting target audiences that may be effective in realising the goals of a psyop mission.

The project utilising Watson delivered an improvement on the timeframe of analysis compared to traditional TAA development methodology.

In May last year, Defence said it was looking to use Watson for several high-impact, classified initiatives.

Strategic imperative

The importance of Watson to IBM’s future cannot be overstated. With its traditional hardware business in decline, IBM is pinning its hopes on “strategic imperatives” like Watson, cloud and analytics. Success in the government vertical is vital.

“In 2016, our strategic imperatives grew to represent more than 40 per cent of our total revenue and we have established ourselves as the industry’s leading cognitive solutions and cloud platform company,” Rometty said in a full year earnings announcement last week.

Rometty says Watson is “the world’s leading AI platform for business”. But heavyweights like Microsoft, AWS and Google are making similar claims.

Other AI platforms are being piloted within Australian government. The Department of Human Services is using Microsoft’s Cortana Intelligence Suite to infuse bots with deeper human context and conversational understanding to help agents be more effective. The Australian Securities and Investments Commission are undertaking a pilot of a “cognitive learning tool” with an unnamed regtech firm to reveal unlicensed or misleading conduct in relation to self-managed superannuation fund activities.

With IBM’s reputation knocked by the Census debacle, and early-adopter trials coming to a close, Watson’s ongoing role within government remains to be seen.