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Cognitive computing: Beyond the hype

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This article appears in the issue July/August 2014, [Vol 23, Issue 7]


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Disruptions happen when three elements converge: market needs, available technologies, and an environment of experimentation and adventure. Those all exist today, and cognitive computing is one innovation at that crossroads. Some would argue it is the industry’s most important one.

In 2011, when IBM’s Watson soundly defeated the two leading human Jeopardy champions, it alsoestablished cognitive computing as a new phenomenon to be watched. Cognitive computing could become an important new platform for innovation by the industry, but it will require market definition, a far broader level of education than exists today, and a new level of clarity in the conversation to dispel a growing skepticism among industry players and customers alike.

As Bob Eccles and Nitin Nohria asked in Beyond the Hype: “Is something fundamental going on, or does today’s craze for newness simply point to our willingness, perhaps even our need, to indulge in the excitement of imaginary revolutions?”

Core characteristics

We believe that cognitive computing systems are fundamentally different from today’s software. But we must pin down precisely what differentiates cognitive computing from what has gone before. What will these new types of computing architectures and applications allow us to do that we are unable to accomplish with today’s tools?

With this background in mind, we have formed a cross-industry group to define cognitive computing and to differentiate it from the current state of technology. Our working group members are a diverse group of industry luminaries from large vendors to small tech startups. They have backgrounds in enterprise search, text analytics, CRM, big data, machine learning, statistics and Web search. Together, we have begun the process of articulating the core characteristics of cognitive computing. Our draft definition is evolving rapidly. As a first take, we propose six distinguishing features that all cognitive computing systems must have:

  • Information adept—capable of integrating multiple heterogeneous sources and then synthesizing ideas or answers from them.
  • Dynamic and adaptive—learn and change as they receive new information, new analyses, new users, new interactions, new contexts of inquiry or activity.
  • Probabilistic—discover relevant patterns based on context, predict the probability of valuable connections, and return answers based on learning and deep inferencing. Find unexpected patterns—a kind of machine-aided serendipity.
  • Highly integrated—all modules contribute to a central learning system and are affected by new data, interactions and each other’s historical data.
  • Meaning-based—leverage language structure, semantics and relationships.
  • Highly interactive—provide tools and interaction designs to facilitate advanced communications within the integrated system and incorporate stateful human-computer interactions, data analysis and visualizations.

The new element

Cognitive computing systems must be able to handle ambiguity and a shifting set of variables, constantly re-evaluating information based on changes in the user, task, context, goal or new information. They must understand the question or context before seeking answers. They may offer multiple “good” answers that are weighted for confidence or closeness to the query or topic. Users must be able to interact with the system easily in a kind of continuing “conversation.” Like humans, these systems must be dynamic, and they must learn.

Cognitive computing should redefine the relationship between people and their digital environment. Context is the new element at the heart of this next computing frontier. The first wave of computing made numbers computable. The second wave has made text and rich media computable and accessible digitally. The next wave will make context computable.

Cognitive computing gathers contextual information from multiple sources, including your current task, your past behavior, the traffic, the weather and any other information that might be pertinent. It takes it all in, but then filters it using the lens of your context. Together, the user and the system act as a team to steer information gathering and decisions as the twists and turns of an information path unfold.

We hope to help ground the discussion of cognitive computing on a verifiable framework of capabilities and technologies. Please join the discussion. Find our latest thinking on cognitive computing at synthexis.com, or watch our website at cognitivecomputingconsortium.org for resources, events and publications on cognitive computing.

For a video of the cognitive computing session at the recent Enterprise Search and Discovery conference (enterprisesearchsummit.com/NY2014) in New York, visit http://youtu.be/1eh7SzinIZA


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