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Apple and IBM partnership could make Siri more like Watson

IBM showed off its Watson supercomputer for the first time on Jeopardy in 2011. IBM's partnership with Apple may lead to consumer application of Watson's technology in Apple products.
IBM showed off its Watson supercomputer for the first time on Jeopardy in 2011. IBM's partnership with Apple may lead to consumer application of Watson's technology in Apple products.
Photo by Ben Hider/Getty Images

This week’s deal between former competitors Apple and IBM could lead to a partnership between both companies’ natural language recognition software according to one report.

Apple’s Siri voice recognition client may soon work in unison with IBM’s Watson, according to a report released yesterday by VentureBeat. Siri, currently found on iPhone and iPad devices, accepts naturally-spoken voice commands to carry out simple tasks. Watson, which is best known for participating in a Jeopardy contest between former champions Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter, answers questions from users by accessing a pre-determined knowledge base and formulating the best possible available answer.

While Watson and Siri have the same basic functionality in terms of being able to recognize natural language and query respective databases for an answer, IBM’s Watson carries out a far more complex process. Watson can take large amounts of data on a set of topics and be taught how to parse that information and determine what’s relevant to its queries. For the Jeopardy contest, Watson answered questions by combing through information from dictionaries, encyclopedias and other knowledge bases to come up with the best answer. While Watson struggled slightly with shorter questions and more complicated language problems, it beat the two Jeopardy champions in the tournament. IBM is currently testing that technology in other fields, including answering medical questions asked by doctors and nurses at hospitals and other treatment facilities. Beyond using Watson for medical applications, IBM has demonstrated the ability for Watson to be used in everyday circumstances. At this year’s SXSW in Austin, IBM used Watson on a food truck where it generated creative recipes for chefs to cook and serve to patrons.

While Siri has much more limited capabilities and can only carry out basic functions, it has a much wider commercial use in Apple’s consumer electronics. While Watson can respond to queries from large knowledge bases and formulate possible answers, Siri’s technology only revolves around understanding natural language and executing basic commands like calling or texting. Siri can also reach out to Wolfram Alpha for factual queries limited to numbers, figures, equations and factual information.

Improving Siri’s natural language recognition with Watson’s technology may be one implication of this partnership, but a more immediate application could be for Siri to access the API of one of the Watson systems to answer more complicated queries. The process would be similar to how Siri already accesses Wolfram Alpha, but Watson can provide best possible answers and guesses while Wolfram Alpha can only match up to specific keywords. Apple, whose iOS 8 update will include HealthKit functionality, could use Watson to answer health-related questions that might not have a simple answer or even just one answer. Apple could also work on projects with IBM’s Watson Group, which began this year as a business unit focused on providing Watson’s technology for enterprise companies via a cloud-based query to one of several Watson systems.

While nothing has been established for certain in the early days of this partnership, the collaboration of the two technologies serves as an interesting possibility for the two tech giants. Applying Watson to consumer demands provides a new and innovative application for the technology, and IBM’s partnership with Apple may prove to be the starting point for launching Watson’s technology to the public.

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