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Interview: IBM Watson’s creative director on Amazon Echo and how AI can save lives

by Jacob Kleinman | May 30, 2016May 30, 2016 3:00 pm PDT

IBM Watson burst onto the scene in 2011 as a Jeopardy-playing computer and quickly became synonymous with artificial intelligence. Since then, AI has become a lot more commonplace thanks to the rise of digital assistants like Siri, Amazon’s Alexa and Google Assistant, but Watson is still chugging away in more ways than you might think, powering everything from cancer treatment software to hotel concierge robots (pictured above).

I had a chance to talk to Maya Weinstein, Senior Interaction Design and Creative Director at IBM Watson, about everything from the current crop of AI assistants to how the technology can help save lives. Check out the full interview (with some light edits for clarity) below.

Jacob Kleinman: What do you think of the rise of consumer AI products like chatbots or Amazon Echo?

Maya Weinstein: I think we still need to push them on the design side. There’s some cool tech out there but we need to think about what’s really needed. Does it really solve any problems you have in your day-to-day life? There are some that do. Nest is a good example. It deals with how we heat and cool our house, use electricity and how that system is kind of broken. There are ways we can solve issues through AI and design that are powerful.

Healthcare is a big area where there’s a lot to be done. We’re doing a lot at Watson in terms of doing DNA and cancer research, and we keep looking at ways to improve healthcare through technology.

JK: What kind of work do you do with Watson?

MW: I work with partners as an idea consultant to help them find the best possible way to use Watson as an application. We talk about where they want to go in the market and how to use Watson to do this. We do it rapidly in a few days, looking at how we can form a collaboration.

JK: Can you give me a good example from a recent project?

MW: We worked with a company called Magellan Health. They’re working on suicide prevention for veterans in collaboration with one of our other partners. It was a two-day workshop. We looked at all the problems facing veterans in the workforce like their healthcare needs and rejoining their families. We also looked at the other side. What are families and healthcare professionals dealing with? What as a technology platform can we provide? How can we cut down on veteran suicides through a platform that will help them become better adjusted?

JK: How does Watson work into that?

MW: Well, we have a lot of different services and APIs. There’s a dialogue API. There might be like 21 different services that we can provide.

JK: How long have you worked at IBM?

MW: Three years. I was hired in 2013 at the Austin design studio. I was one of 60 initial hires as part of an initiative to bring designers into IBM to change the culture and improve the product line through design. It was a big initiative to change internally on design thinking for everyone from engineers to vice presidents. So I was hired as part of this initiative and worked in Austin for about a year. I’ve since moved to New York and worked more as a consultant

JK: Were you always interested in artificial intelligence?

MW: I went to Parsons School of Design for design and technology. I’d thought about AI before but I hadn’t actually worked with it. When I first joined IBM I knew I wanted to work with Watson because it seemed really interesting. The kind of areas they were working with, like healthcare, are really important to me.

JK: How has Watson changed since you joined?

MW: That’s a great question. When I first joined I think there were only a few APIs including Q&A and since then we’ve expanded so much. Lots of foreign language translations, personality analyzing, analyzing for tone. These more human AI capabilities have come in the last year or two and it’s been interesting to watch.

JK: You clearly have a strong interest in healthcare. Can I ask where that comes from?

MW: It’s mostly for more personal reasons. I deal with a quite a few health problems. I know what a pain it can be to not have answers to things. I’ve seen a lot of people get sick. It’s just a personal battle that I’d like to see fought.

JK: Tell me about your presentation.

MW: So it’ll be a two-hour workshop. I like to call it a design activation. It’s a really quick and rapid way to get people excited about design thinking. I won’t train people but I’ll enable them to do it in a short time. Talks can be so long and they just run together. I like to get people really engaged and hands-on. So it will be very on your feet with Post-it notes instead of just listening to me talk.

JK: What’s the challenge going to be?

MW: Well I don’t want to give too many spoilers ahead of time. The idea is we would rapidly design something that’s a part of your everyday experience. We’ll give it a nice little Watson spin so you can include some cognitive ideas into your experience.

JK: Is this your first time attending Northside? Are you excited?

MW: I haven’t been to the conference before, but I’ve been to quite a few of the talks and I’m quite familiar with the series. I was just looking at it today and there are a lot of interesting speakers. I saw the CEO of Thinx is speaking and I think that company is super interesting. I would love to see that talk.

TechnoBuffalo will be attending the Northside Festival’s Innovation conference next month so stay tuned for more coverage. You can also head to Northside’s website now to check out the full list of speakers, music and film, or order your tickets online.

IBM

Jacob Kleinman

Jacob Kleinman has been working as a journalist online and in print since he arrived at Wesleyan University in 2007. After graduating, he took a...

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