Cognitive computing

IBM’s Watson; the future of personalised technology

Cognitive computing is copying humanity with machinery; scary fiction becoming fact or technology solving our greatest problems?

The Terminator series of movies grabbed the world’s attention with the scary possibility that a network of armed machines could somehow self organise and destroy us.

This destructive tipping point dramatises a worst case scenario in the field of Artificial Intelligence (AI). The idea is that we can create an equivalent intelligence outside of our brains; not just advanced calculations but independent thinking, logic and creativity.

Cognitive computing broadly refers to our efforts in hardware and software engineering to achieve this, writing software and building real or virtual robots that mimic humans and think like we do.

The moral and humane benefits are obvious but possible unintended consequences of AI have been great material for science fiction writers and futuristic movies.

IBM has done pioneering work in the field of cognitive computing; their research labs call it:

“systems that learn at scale, reason with purpose and interact with humans naturally”

At the recent IBM Connect 2016 conference in Johannesburg we were treated to a number of demonstrations of the latest version of Watson, their cognitive computing system that famously won a game of Jeopardy in 2011

This achievement was significant because automating answers in Jeopardy requires human language processing, abstract reasoning and even a sense of humour.

This is a huge leap forward from a computer playing chess; a set of binary rules that can be programmed and played in sequences based on analysing permutations and outcomes.

IBM’s Deep Blue beat chess world champion Gary Kasparov in 1997; an important milestone in cognitive computing but the latest Watson is taking us to a new inflection point.

The 2011 Watson that won Jeopardy only used one capability; natural language question and answer processing.

The Watson of today uses more than 50 cognitive technologies, enabled by over two dozen APIs which blend multiple academic, hardware, process and algorithmic streams of computational intelligence.

Form factors of these technologies have already become mainstream; facial recognition security systems, financial robo-advisors, Uber’s routing algorithms and Apple’s widely used Siri voice recognition capability.

Watson’s Open API architecture means their highly advanced computational power is becoming almost democratised; companies with use cases can plug in and solve real world problems.

IDAvatars is a company that builds conversational avatars such as Sophie; the first ever emotionally intelligent mobile app that automates patient doctor diagnosis.

Founder and CEO of IDAvatar, Norrie Daroga demonstrated Sophie live on stage; the world’s medical knowledge instantly scanned and individualised in real time in the palm of his hand.

Sophie didn’t work 100% but I was reminded of Google X’s famous edict; “perfection is the enemy of greatness”.

Every one of Thomas Edison’s 10,000 failed light bulbs was a stepping stone to the breakthrough of electrified lighting; now a mundane expectation when you flick a switch.

How many of today’s big world problems could be solved by disruptive thinkers focusing the immense power of AI and cognitive computing on specific use cases?

IBM also showed off their robot called NAO; the result of a partnership between IBM and Softbank that brings together mechanical engineering and robotic hardware capabilities with cognitive computing technologies.

NAO has seven senses which showcases Watson’s power; moving, feeling, hearing, speaking, seeing, connecting and thinking.

Google bought eight robotics companies in 2013 as a huge push into this field under a new division called Replicant but there has been negative sentiment from some sinister videos of their robots in action.

Computing power continues to grow exponentially but cognitive applications combine this with the world’s knowledge to make software that is human-like and caters to our specific needs.

Watson is probably the world’s best example of how this can benefit the human race; people like Norrie Daroga are pushing these boundaries and embracing what technology offers us.

The man vs machine narrative of movies like The Terminator is a distraction from the humanitarian benefits of cognitive computing that can genuinely address some of the world’s biggest problems.

MIT Professor and co-author of The Second Machine Age Erik Brynjolfsson believes:

“The future we get will depend on the choices we make. Technology is not destiny. We shape our destiny.”

I found the Watson-powered NAO robot quite friendly and helpful; a striking contrast with the armed Terminator’s threat of “I’ll be back”.

Technology is changing our lives ever more rapidly and cognitive computing is creating a world of blurred boundaries between man and machine; Watson is showing us what this future holds.

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