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IBM trains Watson to be a cyber security cop

The cognitive computer will study the latest security gathered by IBM and eight universities.

'Jeopardy!' & IBM Man V. Machine Press Conference Photo by Ben Hider/Getty Images

Computing giant IBM has always had big plans for its brainy thinking computer named Watson. Since Watson beat human players at the TV game show "Jeopardy" in 2011, the company has given Watson a varied series of job assignments: Cancer researcher, fitness coach, customer service rep. It has even learned Japanese, designed dresses and provided the brain for a talking toy dinosaur.

Now Big Blue says it will train Watson to fight cybercrime. The company says its security division will team up with a group of eight universities to teach the cloud-based computer, programmed to learn subjects in a manner similar to the human brain, on the complicated subject of cyber security.

The plan will combine some 20 years' worth of IBM's collected knowledge on how to protect computers against hacking with other constantly updating data sources, like databases of software vulnerabilities and research papers.

Keeping up with new information as it changes is a big enough challenge for human researchers and analysts. Watson absorbs information and then learns to recognize patterns and context within it. Eventually it can understand complex questions posed in natural language and answer them in much the same way a human does, according to its interpretation of the information it has and its level of confidence in the answer. And, like a human, sometimes those answers can be wrong, especially after a guess made with incomplete information (see Watson's infamous "Jeopardy!" game response, "What is Toronto?").

The aim, the company says, is to created a cloud-based version of a Watson-powered service that's always up to speed on the latest security threats and familiar with the latest ideas of how to manage them. It won't be making final decisions on what to do, but instead will help human security analysts and researchers come to more informed decisions, kind of like what it does in the field of cancer treatment.

Security was a $2 billion business at IBM last year, and one it has been spending on to grow. In February it acquired Resilient Systems, an incident response company, adding about 100 to its stable of 3,000 security consultants in the process.

Now, Big Blue reports its security, data analysis and cognitive computing business units together as one. That unit posted $4 billion in revenue in the first quarter, amounting to more than 21 percent of the company's overall sales of $18.7 billion. By revenue, it's IBM's third largest business segment — but it's the most profitable by far, with gross margins of of nearly 85 percent.

And while those profit margins are impressive, Watson has over the years faced big questions about how important it really is to IBM's future. A couple years ago, sales of the system were said to be falling short of expectations. As luck would have it, we'll get to ask CEO Ginni Rometty about it at our Code conference later this month.

Correction: We originally overstated the number of security engineers that joined IBM by way of its acquisition of Resilient Systems.

This article originally appeared on Recode.net.