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July 24, 2014

Military Insurer USAA Embraces IBM’s Watson

IBM said this week it is expanding commercialization of its Watson cognitive computing technology through a deal with military financial services provider USAA that will result in what IBM said will be Watson’s first commercial application.

The partnership calls for USAA to offer an app called “Watson Engagement Advisor” as part of a pilot program to help veterans transition back to civilian life. The app is designed to advise USAA members on their separation from the military based on Watson’s analysis of more than 3,000 documents related to military benefits.

For example, a veteran could determine eligibility for collecting veterans’ benefits as a member of the reserves, the partners said.

Citing Bureau of Labor Statistics, IBM added that about 155,000 active members of the military transition to civilian life each year.

“We expect to learn how intelligent assistants like IBM Watson can help service members who may not know exactly where or how to start the daunting transition process,” Shon Manasco, a USAA executive vice president and military veteran, said in a statement.

Mike Rhodin, senior vice president of the IBM Watson Group, added that the USAA app could help ease the transition of its members back to civilian life while improving USAA’s customer engagement efforts.

IBM has been positioning Watson artificial intelligence technology to interact with consumers through its natural language capabilities. The technology “learns” through experience, and commercial applications are seen as one of the best ways to scale Watson technology.

IBM has been spending heavily in efforts to commercialize Watson technology, including a $1 billion investment earlier this year to bring cognitive computing to the marketplace. The company is also extending the technology to new markets like health care through application development with Memorial Sloane-Kettering Cancer Center and other medical centers.

Meanwhile, IBM is investing in cognitive computing courses that will begin this fall at seven U.S. universities.

IBM said the USAA app could be used either by customer service agents or consumers and will be delivered via cloud services or mobile devices. IBM is also touting the engagement advisor as allowing organizations to gain insights about customers using big data analysis techniques.

San Antonio-based USAA claims as members about 10.4 million current and former members of the U.S. military along with their families. The company provides insurance, banking, investment and retirement services.

“By embedding Watson on our Web site, we’re able to offer members guidance about a whole range of matters, including job searches, moving, insurance and government benefits for veterans,” USAA’s vice president Eric Engquist, said in an IBM blog post.

Engquist said the Watson-based app represents an improvement over a standard search engine or directory because the natural language tool is capable of understanding the context of a question. For example, Watson could distinguish between different types of medical coverage under the Defense Department’s Tricare heath care system.

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DOD Health Care Competition Attracts Big Data Players