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AI: The issue is execution

In February of 2011, IBM Research and IBM marketing together dropped arguably the biggest bombshell in enterprise artificial intelligence (AI) this decade. By demonstrating on the hit prime time game show Jeopardy! that a machine could understand and analyze many fields of human knowledge and answer questions faster and more accurately than human experts, Watson’s (www.ibm.com/watson) dominating victory created an instant global brand and offered IBM an opportunity to lead the industry in ushering enterprises into a new “smarter” era of computing.

It’s instructive to recall that IBM had succeeded at this trick before. Its marketing group had developed a fine sensitivity about how to communicate with corporate executives about technology innovation and the value offered by evolving IBM products. As an early example, in the early 1980s, personal computers were geek hobbyist devices complete with soldering irons and custom components. Ken Olsen, engineer CEO of Digital Equipment Corp., famously stated at the time that no one should want a computer in their home. But IBM noted the growth of a trend, especially the success of Apple Computer, and made a big bet on creating a forward-looking and friendly way to convince enterprises that PCs could be for real, and that IBM would lead them on a safe path. The advertising campaign it created using Charlie Chaplin’s “Little Tramp” character, a vase of roses, and the “tools for modern times” theme catapulted the IBM PC into market dominance for years to come.

A novel achievement

A different kind of branding strategy featured IBM Research’s most impressive leaps forward. The notion that computers could play chess at the level of human grand masters, for example, had been rejected by mainstream computer science well into the 1980s. IBM scientists, however, armed with newly powerful supercomputer hardware and custom “chess chips,” had been working on making a chess grand master program. This work would culminate in Deep Blue, the chess-playing machine that eventually defeated Garry Kasparov, the reigning world chess champion, in 1997. And, of course, IBM marketing used the novel achievement to trumpet IBM’s technology sophistication and analytical “smarts” to executives as a core differentiator relative to its enterprise systems competitors.

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