IBM and SoftBank Teaching Watson Japanese

Watson's natural speech recognition capabilities will have to adopt to Japanese and Kanji

Jason Verge

February 10, 2015

2 Min Read
IBM and SoftBank Teaching Watson Japanese

IBM’s cognitive computing system Watson is going to Japan through an alliance with Japanese telco and Internet service provider SoftBank. The goal is to bring the new class of Watson-powered application services to market in the region, but first, Watson has to learn Japanese.

Watson excels at natural language recognition -- a talent first publicly demonstrated during a game show Jeopardy, aired in U.S. in 2011, where Watson competed and won against two of the show's past champions. But Jeopardy is a U.S. show, and questions were asked in English.

IBM and SoftBank will collaborate on building a local ecosystem of partners, entrepreneurs, app developers, and investors around the Watson initiative in Japan. As part of the alliance, the technology will also be embedded into SoftBank's social robotics platform dubbed "Pepper."

Pepper is a humanoid robot able to communicate through voice, touch, and emotions, and in combination with Watson, it might be the most impressive robotics showcase the world will have ever seen.

For Watson, Japanese mastery will be a major challenge. It is a more difficult language to learn than English or Spanish because of its reliance on kanji, a diagrammatical alphabet. With a different alphabet also comes a different structure, so the switch is not quite as easy as plugging into something similar to Google Translate.

“The Japanese language presented IBM researchers with a number of unique challenges to overcome, most notably the first time the Watson system has learned a language that relies on characters not shared by the Western alphabet," Paul Yonamine, general manager of IBM Japan, said in a statement.

If the project is successful, the applications are endless in markets like healthcare, banking, insurance, telecommunications, and the automotive industries.

“The alliance with SoftBank, an industry pioneer, will bring new Watson capabilities to organizations in one of the most innovative parts of the world,” said Mike Rhodin, senior vice president, IBM Watson Group, in a release. “Together, we will be able to more quickly deploy Watson to enterprises throughout Japan, while building a rich ecosystem of partners, entrepreneurs, developers and other third-parties to design and deliver an entirely new class of cognitive computing apps."

IBM made some Watson capabilities available to the masses in 2013 and now claims that over 6,000 applications use them. IBM recently added some new Watson services, extending the types of functionality developers can build into applications.

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