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Watson is about to get friendlier.

More specifically, Big Blue has purchased Australia-based Cognea for its “depth of personality” technologies. The startup provides virtual assistants for enterprises with personalities that, IBM said, range from “suit-and-tie formal to kid-next-door friendly.” Terms of the deal were not disclosed.

“This seems to raise the ante on the style of communication you can have [with a computer],” IDC Program Director Al Hilwa told VentureBeat. “What used to be science fiction could be a reality in a few years.”

One part of that sci-fi vision is a superbrain, such as one that can debate on any subject. In January, IBM launched the Watson Group to exploit the capabilities of its Jeopardy-winning supercomputer and committed a billion dollars for the effort.

“Ultimately,” Senior VP Michael Rhodin wrote Monday on the company’s Smarter Planet blog, “we plan to offer technologies that make it possible for you to carry on a highly intellectual debate with a computer.”

Here’s a preview from a presentation last month, showing Watson constructing pro and con arguments on a given topic on the fly.

It doesn’t yet have the kind of personality overlay that Cognea and other technologies might offer, but it gives a sense of the amazing argumentative capabilities that a knowledge-crunching supercomputer like Watson could offer. Scrub through to about 45:27 for the really good part:


The other part of the vision is a more human-like conversational interface.

“It’s now the Golden Age for many things,” IDC’s Hilwa told us, “including human-computer interfaces like Siri and Cortana.” But, he added, interaction with the current generation of virtual agents “is pretty shallow.”

Rhodin described the current ability of “giving the computer a simple command or asking a simple question” as “yesterday’s technology.”

“I’m talking about more realistic conversations — everything from friendly chitchat to intense debate. … I think about all of the people I come into contact with in the course of my day-to-day life: my wife and kids, the kids’ teachers, my parents, my friends, my professional colleagues, the auto mechanic, doctors, strangers I meet at parties, etc. I adopt different ways of speaking in each situation — different vocabularies and styles. And so do they. It’s obvious that conversations between humans and computers will play out in the same way.”

Cognea, founded in 2005, offered MyCyberTwin virtual agents, which it described as “highly accurate, able to handle complex tasks, always in a good mood, [able to] speak many languages and work day and night.” An IBM spokesperson told us that we can expect to see more conversational capabilities appearing over the next few months, although Cognea’s technologies may not be available to IBM until later this year because the deal has to pass Australian regulatory review.

Cognea will become part of the company’s Watson Conversational Services, available to business partners and research universities in the supercomputer’s ecosystem of commercial and research partners.

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