Today IBM and the Weather Company announced something rather interesting: a new weather service that has IBM’s Watson platform at its heart. It could provide businesses with an unparalleled view into the near-term future. In the past, analytics have been employed after the fact to understand why something happened. This new deal is just the beginning of a sea change where analytics is used to provide an ever more accurate view of the world ahead.
This is what artificial intelligence (AI) is eventually going to be about—not just providing ever more capable answers to difficult questions but creating a rolling view of the future so that decisions can always be made as if they were made in hindsight. Used in this way, Watson becomes sort of a digital crystal ball, and that is pretty amazing.
The IBM/Weather Company announcement talks about capturing information from the massive number of weather sensors in the world to create a far more accurate forecast. They would then provide that data to companies to help them decide which kinds of services to offer and to help them set staffing levels.
If there is a major storm coming, utilities can adjust their distribution and deploy field repair people so they are closer to where outages might actually occur, resulting in lower downtime and less lost revenue. Streaming companies might anticipate more adults and kids watching streamed content. And local stores might want to send out email reminders that they are open if the folks at home need to stock up on supplies, while bringing in more staff to handle the increased loads.
In the case of localized incidents, the IBM/Weather Company solution could provide a more accurate and timely report of tornado touchdowns, as well as more quickly sending notices as to when and where to shelter. This could also result in a faster deployment of first responders so that they are both safer and more available.
Even clothing retailers could switch up what they offer and have promotions for rain gear, cold weather clothing or warm weather apparel that customers will soon want. They could send out fliers with specials so that the customers are drawn to their stores. Even product placement could be addressed with hardware and other retail stores putting tools to fix weather-related damage front and center.
In short, this new system will not only predict the coming weather more accurately, but for those that use it, it will provide advice that can help them to be safer and more prepared. It can help them lose less money and take advantage of unique sales opportunities.
The IBM/Weather Company deal is effectively the creation of a digital crystal ball—one far better than that mythical device. In addition to answering questions about the future, it will also automatically know which questions need asking and provide the answer. By comparison, you might ask a crystal ball if you will marry a particular person, but even better would be an automated system that can warn you that marrying that person will end badly. The IBM system will give you the answer you actually need, not just the one you want.
This is the promise of an Internet of Things (IoT)-based intelligent system. It will not only be able to model the future, but it will also be increasingly able to anticipate what you didn’t know you needed to know and provide it.
This represents the future of intelligent systems, systems that actually tell you what you need to know when you need to know it, rather than just analyzing why something happened or answering questions that you knew to ask. You need both the connection to a solution and the IoT part of the announcement to truly make this work. I believe the end result may actually be better than magic. How often does that happen?
In reality, part of our difficulty is that we don’t know what questions to ask. Watson is targeted at fixing this critical problem. That’s kind of amazing when you stop to think about it, and this potentially gives IBM a very unique advantage in the market.