It's clever enough to beat humans on quiz shows and diagnose illnesses, but is IBM's artificially intelligent supercomputer tough enough to cope with angry consumers who've been on hold for three hours?
IBM certainly seems to think so, as it has just given Watson a new job as a customer service manager.
Rather than phoning a company and having your query dealt with by the usual call centre cast of teenagers, simpletons and ex-convicts, you can call Watson, who will deal with your increasingly angry enquiries with all the calmness you'd expect from a machine.
The new service will be called the Watson Engagement Advisor and will allow customers to ask questions using real language, either on the phone or through webpages, email or instant messaging.
According to IBM, their customer service-focused equivalent of Skynet will "quickly address customers' questions, offer advice to guide their purchase decisions, and troubleshoot their problems" - something few call centre workers find themselves doing very effectively.
For anyone annoyed by the thought of speaking to a robot when they need to take out a loan or query a gas bill, it may come as some relief to hear that Watson is actually cleverer than a human being.
In a blog post, Manoj Saxena, general manager of IBM Watson Solutions, said the system would revolutionise the way we interact with businesses:
We’re widening the scope that the technology addresses. It’s gratifying and exciting to see how rapidly this technology is developing. And, as far as I’m concerned, this is just the start. This next era of computing is going to touch all of our lives in positive ways we can’t yet imagine.
The new era of customer service will work via an "Ask Watson" feature, which will be able to answer questions from ordinary people and then offer solutions.
IBM has managed to shrink the system by 75 per cent while making it 25 per cent faster, meaning cell centres will get a lot of bang for their buck as they begin to fire their human staff.
Consumers will be able to experience this new level of personalized service through the brands they already have relationships with — their banks and investment advisors, their phone service providers, insurance companies, favorite stores and other trusted organizations. For instance, a bank might offer Watson directly to customers on web sites and mobile devices to help give them insights regarding retirement and various types of savings instruments like 401K accounts.
All good and well, but IBM might want to fix one flaw with their cyber call-centre worker. Engineers had to fit a bad language filter after teaching Watson a load of naughty words. If it can't cope with the odd swear word, how on earth will it cope with foul-mouthed customers (such as the infamous angry BT customer rung by their telesales department) reaching the end of their collective tether? ®