Smart Machines: IBM's Watson and the Era of Cognitive Computing


New book from Columbia Business School Publishing: “We are crossing a new frontier in the evolution of computing and entering the era of cognitive systems. The victory of IBM’s Watson on the television quiz show Jeopardy! revealed how scientists and engineers at IBM and elsewhere are pushing the boundaries of science and technology to create machines that sense, learn, reason, and interact with people in new ways to provide insight and advice.
In Smart Machines, John E. Kelly III, director of IBM Research, and Steve Hamm, a writer at IBM and a former business and technology journalist, introduce the fascinating world of “cognitive systems” to general audiences and provide a window into the future of computing. Cognitive systems promise to penetrate complexity and assist people and organizations in better decision making. They can help doctors evaluate and treat patients, augment the ways we see, anticipate major weather events, and contribute to smarter urban planning. Kelly and Hamm’s comprehensive perspective describes this technology inside and out and explains how it will help us conquer the harnessing and understanding of “big data,” one of the major computing challenges facing businesses and governments in the coming decades. Absorbing and impassioned, their book will inspire governments, academics, and the global tech industry to work together to power this exciting wave in innovation.”
See also Why cognitive systems?

One Reply to “Smart Machines: IBM's Watson and the Era of Cognitive Computing”

  1. Thanks for posting this Stefaan. This is obviously a hugely interesting topic with a lot of facets, but the one I’ve thought about a bit in the past is whether thinking machines signal the coming (further?) irrelevance of policy analysts as advisors to government decision makers. Thirty years ago we were on the cusp of what seemed like smart MIS systems (“Wouldn’t it make life easier if people could communicate with a management information system in everyday language?” ; Blanning, R. W. (1984). “Conversing with management information systems in a natural language.” Communications of the ACM, 27(3), 201-207). Turned out that policy analysts become even more important translators in that era. But the post-Watson cognitive computing era promises so much more.
    Apparently we have been witnessing the death of policy analysis for some time (e.g., Kirp, David L. (1992). “The end of policy analysis: With apologies to Daniel (the end of ideology) Bell and Francis (the end of history) Fukiyama.” Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, 11: 693–696.) and – without wishing to over-dramatize the situation – the policy analysis profession is facing a ‘perfect storm’ of factors that present an existential challenge for the contemporary policy analyst – among them, what they do that a cognitive computer can’t. (I’ve already had one senior policy analyst tell me “when I brief the Minister, I have to make sure I’m a lot better than a good Google search.”)
    This goes to the core of what policy analysts are for. They provide support for decision making – hopefully contributing to better decisions than would be taken in the absence of their analysis (Quade, E.S. (1975). Analysis for public decisions. New York: Elsevier). They act as information agent, knowledge manager, coordinator and collaborator, boundary agent, advocate and gatekeeper. But as artificial intelligence improves, allowing decision-makers to directly query and visualize massive databases and create models through which to process that data, what legitimate role do policy analysts play other than maybe the care and feeding of intelligent machines? Maybe it’s just my jaded perspective, but I think the rise of “business analysts”, coincident with the fall of “policy analysts”, is related to this.
    I should close on a hopeful note: even as cognitive computing advances, there are a few things humans still do a bit better (a nice list is here – http://blogs.hbr.org/cs/2011/05/seven_things_human_editors_do.html – and sketches the value of people over machines). Cass Sunstein in Republic.com also notes how search may blind you to alternative viewpoints and Douglas Coupland (he’s Canadian, you know, like Alice Munro) has described this filtering effect recently in his own unique way: http://www.ft.com/cms/s/2/1e04ec0c-3147-11e3-b478-00144feab7de.html#axzz2i6qB73Tt ).

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