Purple Forge CEO says IBM’s Watson just ‘scratching the surface

Everybody’s favourite supercomputer, Watson, is being tagged as a transformative technology after a successful run in Surrey, B.C., Purple Forge president and CEO Brian Hurley said Monday night.

Presenting in front dozens at Carleton University, Mr. Hurley celebrated his Ottawa-based mobile application provider’s work with IBM’s Watson to help streamline Surrey’s municipal website.

“The technology is transformational in terms of how it can change how we interact with businesses and organizations,” Mr. Hurley said in an interview after the presentation. “[Watson is] also transformational in how it changes the cost structures for businesses and allows them to provide better services for customers.” 

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Using a revenue-sharing model, IBM licensed the Watson technology to Purple Forge, allowing them to integrate the technology with Surrey’s municipal website. Mr. Hurley said this fit a specific need within the Surrey community to both streamline the process of scouring the municipal website and also to reduce costs. 

Mr. Hurley explained that 50 per cent to 80 per cent of requests submitted to service centres are for common questions. Each request handled by an attendee – whether it’s through webchat, phone, email, etc. – costs money. Watson could drastically reduce these costs for both smaller organizations who don’t have the human resources to dedicate to responding to queries and larger organizations who have thousands of documents to scour. 

Mr. Hurley cited a survey where over 50 per cent of respondents claimed to have difficulty finding information on local government websites, so to him, Watson and Surrey were an obvious fit. 

Tony Bailetti, professor at Carleton and head of the Technology Innovation Management (TIM) program, believes that success stories like that of Purple Forge are great for Ottawa high-tech development. Purple Forge is one of the first ventures to get the green light from Carleton’s Lead To Win program.

Having the multinational and world renowned IBM working with a smaller local company like Purple Forge is what Mr. Bailetti described as “gold”. 

“They complement each other,” he said of the two companies. “[And] you’re dealing with a real need. The whole presentation was about real problems that people have . . . information they need now.” 

Mr. Hurley explained that dealing with IBM has been very easy. 

“[I have] nothing but positive words to say about the relationship so far,” he said.

Mr. Hurley said he believes the surface has just been scratched in terms of the applications that Watson can tackle. Headway is being made in areas ranging from cancer research and diagnostics to education. 

“It’s not very often that a technology like Watson comes along and makes such a huge disruptive change,” Mr. Hurley said. 

Mr. Bailetti predicts that Watson’s next implementation might be in the education sector, maybe even gunning for his job one day. 

“It’s cool,” he said. “I’m getting old. And I have tenure.” 

Mr. Hurley, for his part, thinks that’s a long way off. He believes that Watson is best served as an “expertise augmentation”, helping people do their jobs better and more efficiently. 

He did not, however, rule out the possibility of Watson, or a similar program, coming to replace humans in the future.

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