May 22, 2013 01:33 PM EDT

IBM's Watson Gets a Job as a Customer Service Agent

IBM's question-answering Watson supercomputer has a new job-as a customer-service agent.

IBM announced Tuesday the IBM Watson Engagement Advisor, a new version of the company's Jeopardy-playing, cognitive computing technology in a version designed to improve the customer service experience. The technology can interface with company service reps, for agent-assisted service, or it can interact directly with customers.

Companies including Australia's ANZ Bank, Nielsen, and Royal Bank of Canada plan to put this supercomputer to work answering questions by SMS, online chat, email, or through a compatible app.

"Companies tell us that their customers are sharing more and more information about themselves through Twitter, Facebook and reviews, yet the quality of service is going down and customers are getting frustrated," said Manoj Saxena, general manager of IBM Watson Solutions, during the launch event in Nashville, Tenn. "We believe Watson is a great answer to start intermediating this problem."

I.B.M. hopes to take a big step toward mass-market commercialization of Watson on Tuesday, announcing that the technology will be applied to customer service, broadly defined.

Its new offering, called IBM Watson Engagement Advisor, is being pitched as a smart assistant whose services can apply to almost any industry, but especially those that receive many customer service calls, like retailing, banking, insurance and telecommunications.

According to IBM, close to two-thirds of the 135 billion unresolved calls each year could have been resolved with better access to information, the search for which consumes six to eight minutes per call, on average. 

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