"Jeopardy!" contest Ken Jennings, who won a record 74 consecutive games, refers to his opponent, an IBM computer called "Watson", while being interviewed after a practice round of the "Jeopardy!" quiz show in Yorktown Heights, N.Y., Thursday, Jan. 13, 2011. The company announced this week it was acquiring artificial intelligence company Cognea.

IBM’s Watson Group is investing in technology that would infuse the computing system that won “Jeopardy!” in 2011 with specific personalities.

IBM has acquired Cognea, an artificial intelligence start-up that was founded in Australia. Michael Rhodin, senior vice president of the Watson Group, announced the acquisition in a blog post.

Watson uses natural language processing to answer questions by rapidly mining large volumes of data. The so-called cognitive computing system also learns as it goes, logging when answers it provided were wrong, for instance.

Cognea’s technology could give Watson various personalities, spanning from “suit-and-tie formal to kid-next-door friendly,” Rhodin wrote.

“We believe this focus on creating depth of personality, when combined with an understanding of the users’ personalities will create a new level of interaction that is far beyond today’s ‘talking’ smartphones,” Rhodin wrote in the post.

IBM plans to offer these so-called “conversational services” to outside developers, accessible through the Internet cloud; the company has been encouraging technologists to use Watson technology to power their own apps. (While access to Watson’s software is free for developers, IBM plans to take a cut once developers start selling products involving Watson.)

“Smart machines will serve as virtual personal assistants, health coaches, companions for elderly people, investment advisors, tutors, travel agents, customer care agents and shopping advisors. . . In each scenario, they’ll converse with you in the ways that will be most effective—based on who you are and what you want to accomplish,” Rhodin wrote.

Last week, the company announced it was working with three tech companies that are building Watson software: Modernizing Medicine is building an app for dermatologists that turns natural speech into notes, and generates hypotheses about treatment; Reflexis Systems’ app StorePulse helps regional and local managers manage inventory depending on weather and local event information; and Modulus, whose app SharpeMind provides financial advice to users.