Harriet Green tells us she is very excited about the prospect of the cognitive era. And so she should be. The former Thomas Cook CEO, switched holidays for robots, when she joined IBM in 2015 to head up its Watson, Internet of Things, commerce and education department.
"IoT is just an amazing force of the digitisation movement – connecting things to people," she tells Essential Retail.
"It's really all about Watson's ability to take vast amounts of structured and unstructured data and process that data, whether its smell, sound, video or text."
IBM's Watson offers 50 open APIs that any developer in the world can access and use to further their own projects, while IBM can in turn, understand even more about the software. "We understand tonality and sentiment and we're also working on smell and sound."
Green describes how the way a human brain distinguishes the sound as a mascara wand is pulled out of its tube. "You know whether it's a bad or a really nice mascara from the sound and we're translating those into APIs which understand whether a pipe is blocked or clogged," she explains.
"It's taking this data – vast amounts of it, because we've generated more data in the last two years than our life as humans on the planet," she says. "Taking this messy disparate and very big data and using Watson to help correlate and communicate in natural language."
While Watson was unveiled in 2011 by winning a game of Jeopardy against two former champtions, 2016 has been the year for artificial intelligence – Amazon finally bought its AI smart speaker, Echo, to the UK, while a number of retailers are experimenting with AI chat bots to engage with shoppers online and alleviate the strain on its customer service desks.
Shop Direct was one such retailer to deploy chat bots within its Very.co.uk iOS app this year. The technology was developed in-house by Shop Direct's eCommerce team, but the retailer is also working with IBM Watson to develop a fully AI CUI platform in 2017, which will allow customers to ask questions in their own words rather than choosing from multiple choice options.
While some early adopters are already using AI in their businesses, it's clear retail is on the brink of being revolutionised by cognitive technologies. And Green is best placed to spearhead IBM's involvement due to her history of digital transformation projects.
"Most of my roles involved transformation of one type of another and everytime you're involved in a major transformation you have learnings you can bring," she says. "And knowing and understanding consumers on the scale of what we had at Thomas Cook is really helpful as we develop the cognitive era at IBM."
But it's not just commerce which benefits from Watson's capabilities. Green describes how IBM has worked with a client to create a 3D-printed electric bus which shuttles children to and from school. "We applied the cognitive capabilities to the bus, called Ollie, so the school children can talk to the bus and it understands and learns everything about school districts – now this is the most popular school bus."
She also describes how Watson can be applied in hospitals: "People are much happier to ask Watson questions than humans who are very busy," explains Green who says a Watson-enabled robot is being used in Alder Hey children's hospital in Liverpool. "The children ask Watson all sorts of things."
This concierge approach to cognitive capabilities is also being used by a branch of Hilton hotels in the US, but Green argues this technology is not intended to replace humans.
"In a big, busy hotel foyer, having Watson plus a really experienced concierge focused on adding real value, this is a great augmentation between man, woman and machine."
She adds: "We didn't think mainframes would take over people, and we were right. And we didn't think PCs would. And we don't think Watson will. Watson can do more basic entry-level stuff, and a skilled practice accountant or partner can do things that require judgemental experience – Watson emancipates us to do different work."