IBM Watson launches cybersecurity beta program for 40 customers

Already a multimillion dollar business, IBM's Watson launched a cybersecurity beta program with 40 organizations. It's an early move that the company hopes to grow into a multibillion dollar behemoth that helps set the new status quo.

The world’s most famous artificial intelligence platform is moving into cybersecurity.

Seven months after the cybersecurity-specific version of IBM’s Watson was originally unveiled as a research partnership with universities, IBM Security announced Tuesday that 40 organizations will join the IBM Watson for Cyber Security beta program.

The companies include Sun Life Financial, University of Rochester Medical Center, Avnet, SCANA Corporation, Sumitomo Mitsui Banking Corporation, California Polytechnic State University, University of New Brunswick and Smarttech.

IBM is betting that Watson’s ability to analyze enormous amounts of data and effectively answer questions — made famous on “Jeopardy” — can be a multibillion-dollar business. The company already employs over 10,000 workers in the Watson business unit. More than two-thirds of them are dedicated to Watson’s three-year-old health care business, which aids physicians’ diagnoses and patient treatment.


The securities research arm of Swiss bank UBS told the New York Times that Watson could earn $500 million this year, a number that could rise rapidly.

The artificial intelligence market is primed to grow around $50 billion by 2020, according to IDC, a research firm. That comes with already-in-motion competition from firms like Amazon, Google, Oracle and Salesforce. While it’s a moneyed novelty today, A.I. could end up being a ubiquitous technology that touches government, big business and individual consumers alike. Like the growth of the internet over the last three decades, how exactly the rise of A.I. will play out remains guesswork. For cybersecurity, at least, IBM is putting its first foot forward.

Watson’s newest selling point: There is a massive amount of cybersecurity data on the internet, a long-term workforce shortage and a lack of computing power that can absorb and understand about 80 percent of the information that’s intended for human consumption. Stepping into that gap comes Watson’s very marketable and speedy brain, which IBM researchers say can understand security-relevant structured and unstructured data — blogs, videos, research papers, white papers, etc. — and turn what is now an overwhelming and unknowable amount of data into usable information.

“The volume and velocity of data in security is one of our greatest challenges in dealing with cybercrime,” Marc van Zadelhoff, general manager of IBM security, said. “By leveraging Watson’s ability to bring context to staggering amounts of unstructured data, impossible for people alone to process, we will bring new insights, recommendations, and knowledge to security professionals, bringing greater speed and precision to the most advanced cybersecurity analysts, and providing novice analysts with on-the-job training.”

“Customers are in the early stages of implementing cognitive security technologies,” Sandy Bird, IBM Security’s Chief Technology Officer said. “Our research suggests this adoption will increase threefold over the next three years, as tools like Watson for Cyber Security mature and become pervasive in security operations centers. Currently, only seven percent of security professionals claim to be using cognitive solutions.”


Since the Spring 2016 launch, Watson has analyzed around 15,000 documents per month, a number that beat early estimates, to reach a point where its developers say it now understands the fundamental language of security. The goal now is to go well beyond the basics.

When a new cyberattack occurs, Watson is meant to tell beta customers if the issue is associated with known malware or a cyberattack so they better understand the scope of the threat. The A.I.’s unblinking eye will place everything and everyone on customers’ networks under a microscope, in a push to improve detection of suspicious behavior to catch insider threats and compromised accounts.

Patrick Howell O'Neill

Written by Patrick Howell O'Neill

Patrick Howell O’Neill is a cybersecurity reporter for CyberScoop based in San Francisco.

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