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IBM's Watson supercomputer to be turned into personal assistant for business

IBM's Watson had its 15 minutes of fame last year when it beat Jeopardy's most championed human contestants, but can it stoop to the level of personal assistant?

Researchers are working to turn the über-computer into a smartphone-sized attendant, à la Apple's Siri, for businesses.

In an interview with Bloomberg, IBM's Vice President of Innovation Bernie Meyerson envisioned a voice-activated Watson that answers questions helping, say, a farmer in a field wondering when to plant corn.

"He would get a reply in seconds, based on location data, historical trends and scientific studies," Bloomberg said.

IBM first has to turn Watson 2.0, as the successor has been dubbed, into an energy-efficient service that can run on a smartphone or tablet. It won't be long, though, according to Innovation VP Meyerson.

"The power it takes to make Watson work is dropping down like a stone," he told Bloomberg. "One day, you will have ready access to an incredible engine with a world knowledge base."

The greatest challenge for the company is to figure out how to price and deliver Watson as a handheld product. Currently running on the amount of energy it takes to power 6,000 desktop computers, Watson is still too high-maintenance to fit into your smartphone.

IBM has higher hopes for Watson 2.0 than a personal secretary; the company expects to generate billions in sales by turning Watson into a workhorse in the finance, health care, and telecommunications areas, a move far separate from Apple's Siri, which can be programmed to call you by your favourite high school nickname or tell you if it's raining outside.

"In 2.0, we hope to give him more senses," Katharine Frase, vice president of industry research at a New York-based IBM centre, told Bloomberg.

Programmers hope to make Watson understand oncology well enough to advise doctors, IBM's chief medical scientist Martin Kohn told the news outlet. Despite improving technology, the assistant service may be held back by Watson's deal with WellPoint. The system won't master the field of cancer research until at least late 2013.

Bloomberg points out that adding voice recognition and other senses to Watson could prove easier than adding knowledge, "because IBM already makes tools that understand images and natural languages," Kohn said.

"Watson 2.0 is all of these different tools, working together," he said.

Turning Watson into a functioning member of the technological society is expected to help IBM boost revenue to an expected $16 billion (£10 billion) by 2015, according to Bloomberg. The Jeopardy champ is currently crunching financial data for Citigroup Inc. and cancer data for WellPoint Inc.