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​How Australia’s Department of Defence is using IBM Watson

The Australian Department of Defence is using what Matt Smorhun, Assistant Secretary for the ICT Strategy Realisation Branch at the Department of Defence, said was only the second on-premises instance of Watson globally.

Speaking at the CeBIT Australia conference in Sydney on Wednesday, Smorhun said the department decided to invest in a secret, classified version of IBM’s Watson platform, instead of spending valuable time working out how to do artificial intelligence, cognitive learning, and advanced analytics on its own.

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He said Defence decided to “just buy this thing” and then work out how it was going to fit into the organisation later.

After a series of workshops, Defence decided to put its horded data to good use, and as Smorhun told ZDNet, the department has about 14 use cases across all services within the organisation.

The first was sorting through a shipping container filled with data from previous deployments.

“When we deployed into the Middle East many years ago, we started bringing data back and we call that repatriation of information … and our ability to read it and garner lessons learned from that information is zero unless you’re really enthusiastic about going through data in shipping containers,” he said.

“We’ve started putting this thing into IBM’s Watson machine — which don’t let IBM trick you, this thing is a pain in the ass, it’s annoying — but we’ve got the capacity to put 52 million documents … we’re talking about putting 40 million documents into this thing and turning around a response on questions you ask Watson in 16 seconds.”

According to Smorhun, a 16-second return on data that no one was ever going to get a hold of in any way, shape, or form has proven beneficial to the department.

“The lessons that are embedded in there — hopefully — are of real value to when we deploy again, when we do a similar mission in a similar place in a similar environment. It’s got real strategic value,” he continued.

Similarly, he said Defence spends a lot of time working out how weapons systems, sensor systems, and targeting systems all work. Most of these systems are now embedded inside the Watson platform.

“When we practice that stuff we take video of it and say how can we do that better, so what we did was take video and put that into Watson and said instead of spending all of those man hours calculating trajectories and such … this machine will tell you,” Smorhun explained.

“In a proof of concept phase we’re getting from spending seven hours between shooting something and having another crack at it down to two hours and that’s just a proof of concept.

“You’ve got to pump the information into this thing, ask it questions, and get it to learn.”

The Department of Defence’s Watson platform is accredited secret, which allows for sensitive information to be stored inside.

“We convinced IBM to give us one,” Smorhun said, explaining that Watson sits on P-series servers within its environment.

One issue with having an on-premises version of Watson, however, is that Defence doesn’t receive updates in line with the cloud version of the platform.

“It’s a tricky space. I’m yet to see this thing actually learn anything yet, apart from some really incredible analytics — really outstanding analytics — and a powerful engine that can search and join dots together, but have you actually given me an insight that wasn’t written in a document yet, maybe,” Smorhun told ZDNet.

“Its ability to drive information quickly is amazing and the brochure says eventually it will learn.”

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