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Keen to leverage its lead in the corporate technology market, tech giant IBM is expanding the business applications of its artificial intelligence platform, Watson.

Most recently, IBM struck a partnership with American tax preparation firm H&R Block, which will use Watson’s AI capabilities to prepare its customers’ tax returns this coming tax season. Various other companies, including Geico, Staples and Macy’s, are using Watson to answer customer questions or improve mobile apps. The H&R Block deployment is Watson’s broadest to date. The technology will be used by 70,000 tax professionals in 10,000 branch offices across the US.

Watson is one of IBM’s faster-growing businesses, nearly balancing out the losses it continues to suffer in the dwindling market for traditional hardware and software. Unlike many of its competitors in the technology sector, which have gone after consumers with digital assistants like Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa, IBM puts business users at the core of its strategy in the burgeoning AI market.

IBM’s goal is for Watson to be embedded in business processes. Other big tech companies are competing for a slice of the corporate market for artificial intelligence, but Watson has a strong brand and an early lead. “Watson will become a really smart virtual assistant”, said David Kenny, Senior Vice President of IBM’s Watson business.

It is anticipated that artificial intelligence, fuelled by oceans of data, will be used in an array of corporate software applications, according to the New York Times. Research firm IDC predicts that by 2018, 75% of new business software will incorporate artificial intelligence. “A.I. is becoming part of the mix, part of the infrastructure in consumer and business applications”, said IDC analyst David Schubmehl.

Watson’s primary skill is the ability to process vast amounts of text, using so-called natural language processing. For H&R Block’s purposes, it was fed all 74,000 pages of the US tax code, along with thousands of tax-related questions. Watson will use this data to incrementally ask smarter questions, assisting tax professionals and creating what Chief Executive Bill Cobb calls a more “engaging and interactive” experience for clients, with the ultimate aim of increasing retention rates.

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