Cognitive Computing & IBM…What Is It All About and Why Should I Care?

August 9th, 2016

Ron Gordon
Director – Power Systems

The other day, a friend of mine asked me about computers and “cognitive thinking.” He asked “what ever happened to Artificial Intelligence?”   I thought this was interesting since my friend was not really into computers and deep technology.  I wondered where he heard of this topic, and why he came up with the question.  His answer was interesting.  He thought that, with all the iPhones, Web applications, and people more and more dependent on computers, it all had to be going somewhere… like where the devices might actually “think for you and tell you things before you asked.”  Of course, he said, this was in the future and not now, since we have all seen where “computers” take over the world in sci-fi movies (i.e., HAL in 2001 Space Odyssey).  This got me thinking since he wanted an answer about what is going on and what my view is.

Cognitive, meaning “to think” and “computing” meaning done with computers.  Is “cognitive computing” which makes the computer act like a human and “think”.  Descartes said, “I think, therefore I am”.  So, if computers are cognitive, are they human?   I think we are not that far yet.

Cognitive computing is possibly the new name for AI.  In my opinion, it comes in various forms… from basic analytics of data, where you are seeking an answer based on data that is huge and difficult to process without a computer, to using inference engines that can choose the “most likely” answer based on huge data, as well as discover relationships in that data, which may not be obvious to the casual observer.  Basic analytics today is becoming commonplace, and almost essential to companies, in order to gain insights into their business.  What is selling?  What color of shoes is most desired in Peoria versus Detroit?  What are the best methods of advertising to sell my product in malls versus the Web?  Why are people not buying my widgets versus the competitive products?  These questions can be answered today, with relative accuracy based on today’s ability to gather large amounts of data in real time, from many sources, and process it very quickly.   Base systems, like Hadoop, Spark, SAP HANA, etc., support this type of processing.  But, is that Cognitive Computing.   I say yes… kind of like arithmetic is a type of math (no insult to the mathematicians of the world intended).

But, what about more difficult cognitive processes?  Consider the human brain.  It holds lots of information, and you think… meaning connect that information in relationships and come up with answers.  You can only think about topics and categories where you have information from experiences, reading, training, practicing, etc.  And, it comes in all forms, which may be seemingly unrelated initially, like colors (we all know our colors) and the United States of America.  All the information is there, but how do I connect it?  (we now have Red States and Blue States… a new connection in this election year).  So, our human cognitive process is driven by our brain (very fast processor) against data knowledge that has relationships to other data.  Missing data creates a “gap” in possibilities, and hence, limits our thinking.

I think that there is an evolving technology closer to AI (cognitive computing) in the Watson technology from IBM.  We have seen the initial Watson on Jeopardy, and some were amazed, including me.  Now that cognitive computing has progressed even farther, with the latest in Watson logic and programming, it is being used in medical, legal and industrial implementations to gain insight that normal analytics could not obtain.  Using this technology, huge amounts of data are entered into systems on a seemingly focused topic, but maybe not so seemingly focused (i.e., data on medical, cancer, bones, DNA, diets, regional health trends, bio-mass, etc.). What Watson does is make connections between the data in ways that the human brain cannot perform, in any reasonable amount of time.  And sometimes, since the computer is not limited by pre-conceived notions of what is a fit and what is not, can make connections and inferences of data points that are “new.”  Now, when you ask the Watson a question, thru very high-speed processing and algorithms, new insights and possibilities are shown in a most-likely-fit format.  Consider medical as a Cognitive area to be studied.  With medical data on physiology, genetics, research, patient info, geographical info, dietary info, DNA, etc., one would think that for a specific person, a specific analysis of symptoms could be shown and a variety of treatments displayed. This is being done, using huge amounts of data that the normal brain cannot assimilate, nor possibly fathom.

Is this AI?  This is what the term “Cognitive Computing” means today, and IBM Watson is a primary example of what is being done to gain new insights, and possible discoveries.  This is only the beginning and the technology is evolving rapidly.  Go to the web and search on IBM + Watson to learn more.

Can you use it?  I think the answer is yes, but let me think about that for a while.

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