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The Cognitive Era of Computing - A new age of understanding between humans and machines

By Joan Van Loon, Belux Industry Leader Public, Life Sciences, Telco & Utilities and Wouter Denayer, Belux Technical Lead

Artificial intelligence has, since the term first popped up in 1955, been the base of very diverse conversations on the promise of technology. Considered as a savior and a scourge for humanity, praised for its promise and criticized for its slow development, AI has become widely misunderstood, not helped by the way it was characterized in Hollywood.

At IBM, we believe in the enormous potential of intelligent systems, what we call “cognitive computing”.

We refer to cognitive systems as systems that understand, reason and learn. Human experts build their expertise through cognition. They observe their environment, they interpret and evaluate what they see and then decide. Cognitive systems follow a similar path. They are not programmed; they learn.

Cognitive systems understand the world like humans do through natural language, written text and images. Cognitive systems reason. They not only understand the information, but also the underlying concepts and ideas. And finally, they learn and improve over time. Cognitive systems rely on collections of data and information. What’s more, they can make sense of unstructured data (which is 80% of the world’s data today). While data keeps growing at a speed humans can’t follow, cognitive systems are able to keep up with the volume, complexity and unpredictability.

Decades of working on the foundations of cognitive computing technology has now brought us into the cognitive era of computing, with immense potential to transform businesses, governments and society. Through this technology, we have the opportunity to tackle some of the most enduring systemic issues facing our planet, from cancer to climate change to smarter cities.

In February 2011, the world’s first cognitive system, Watson, was introduced. Watson has learned and improved since then, developing to understand increasingly complex data sets and reasoning on patterns and insights to allow for more informed decisions and recommendations. Banks analyze customer requests and financial data to surface insights to help them make investment recommendations. Oncologists leverage their experience and research to make better informed decisions and provide individualized treatment. Pharmaceutical companies solve tough research questions. Hospitals find new insights in patient data and electronic medical records. Lawyers use artificial intelligent attorneys to power through legal research.

And we are far from what’s possible. While current solutions mimic human capabilities related to the left-side of the brain, the analytical, language part, current research is broadening that to the right-side of the brain, combining technology with senses like vision, hearing, smelling and sensing - one step further towards emotion and personality.

The question is: should we fear this? We believe that none of this involves autonomy on the part of the machines. It merely consists in augmenting human abilities. Cognitive technology and augmented intelligence are a necessary step in our pursuit of knowledge, to further our expertise, to understand nature and to improve the human condition. If we correctly shape the effect of cognitive computing on work and employment, there is every reason to believe that the work of humans will become evermore interesting, challenging and valuable. Equally important is the need for societal controls and safeguards, thus building cognitive systems with privacy, security and human control embedded into their design.

In the end, it is our duty to pursue the new possibilities these technologies bring, otherwise we pay a significant price for ‘not knowing.’ We have to find new ways to treat patients, to find critical natural resources, to identify financial risks, to solve societal problems…
At IBM, we believe that many of the problems of the world can be solved, and we believe that cognitive computing is the tool that will help us accomplish this goal. Cognitive systems will keep inspiring the human brain and human intelligence.

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