img-video-jeopardyI’ll take cognitive computing for $1,000 Alex. The answer is, “This powerful computing system famously took on some of Jeopardy’s top champs and beat them handily.” What is IBM’s Watson?

That’s right, in one of the first cases where a supercomputer became a subject of popular household discussion, IBM’s Watson was able to quickly and accurately answer a diverse set of questions covering a whole realm of topics and categories. It was an impressive display, but IBM is now showing that Watson and the area of cognitive computing that it represents is much more than a one trick quiz show champion.

IBM has opened up Watson and its cognitive computing capabilities to a whole host of businesses and fields of research. Available as a cloud-based service, cognitive computing is helping researchers find new drugs, doctors come up with the right treatments for cancer and businesses connect more effectively with their customers.

To find out more about the current uses of cognitive computing, I spoke to Rob High, CTO for Watson at IBM. And the first question I had was to explain exactly what cognitive computing is and how it differs from traditional expert systems.

He said, “The main distinction that we like to point out is that cognitive systems learn their behavior, they’re not programmed, they’re not told through a set of instructions what to do but rather they are set up around a particular reasoning strategy and then they learn how to excel at that reasoning strategy. These kinds of systems are really taught through a training technique, and out of that training technique they continue to evolve and learn and respond with increasing accuracy.”

One of the main ways that Watson specifically works is in the development of answers and taking into consideration how confident Watson is about the accuracy of those answers. High said, “Watson reports its degree of confidence in the answers it’s producing and it does so because what we’re dealing with is the human condition, and the human condition oftentimes is inherently ambiguous. Our language is ambiguous, our choices are sometimes ambiguous, and essentially what the cognitive system is doing is the exact same thing we do when we encounter that ambiguity, which is it’s attempting to translate and it’s attempting to interpret, to fill in the gaps based on contextual history or supporting evidence or other things that it finds that reinforces its belief, but because of that sort of human condition that the cognitive system is dealing with, that humans deal with as well, it has to evaluate the tradeoffs and its interpretation probabilistically. It has to say what are the chances that this word here or the way that this is expressed here means this, especially if there was a lot of ambiguity or innuendo or subtlety to the way that it was expressed, and so having done that it builds up an evaluation of its confidence and that’s really useful for anybody in any of these situations, whether they are trying to answer a question or trying to make a decision or trying to discover a new idea.”

According to High, the type of work being done by Watson and cognitive computing tends to fall into a few different categories .They include explore, which is to help find relevant information within a particular context, engage (which is closest to the Jeopardy model), which is based on finding answers to questions, discover, which is designed to help researchers and others find answers or ideas when they aren’t really sure what the right questions to ask are, and there’s also a use for cognitive computing in decision support.

High said that engage , or answering questions, is still the most common use, but that it can apply to help businesses with customers, and not just researchers and doctors. He said, “The most common use of Watson is what we refer to as engagement and this is engaging consumers by answering their questions, by interacting with them to disambiguate what their interests are or to help them pursue and conduct some point of interest that is relevant to them. Whether that is trying to figure out what insurance is appropriate for you through a series of questions, or even more so answering questions about the context in which you’re buying insurance. If you’re buying home owners insurance well the chances are that you didn’t just wake up that morning and decide that you needed home owners insurance, you were in the business of buying a house perhaps and you’ve got other questions about the house buying process. Watson is able to kind of engage that consumer and really provide a much more satisfying result to their inquiry that ultimately leads to them wanting to perhaps buy that insurance policy. That’s sort of the most common use in business today. “

Finally, I asked Watson’s High about the future of cognitive computing and where we might expect to see its impact going forward.

“Well the big thing I think is cognitive computing permeating into the fabric of our daily lives and the way that we leverage information computing to conduct our lives. People use these computers; you can use them as a way of planning out your daily activities, where the planning activity is not something that you spend a whole lot of time in advance on. Well of course all of the things that you use the computer for in that style are subject to having an understanding of what you’re trying to accomplish, and to an extent that these computer systems are infused with cognitive computing, the better the computer can do at understanding the context of what you’re trying to accomplish and therefore do a better job of assisting you. And so I think that’s going to be the big shift, that we’re going to see this cognitive computing capability be brought down deeper into things that we do on a daily basis. I think we’re going to find this to be the dominant form of computing in the future, especially given that to personalize all of those things is not something you can conceivably do if you had to program all the logic around that for each individual person. These systems are only going to be able to achieve that kind of personalized value if they’re able to learn, learn about you, learn about your way of interpreting the world and the way that you envision the world and the priorities that are important to you, that perhaps you find useful in how you conduct your life. That’s why I think that’s the role that cognitive computing is going to have for us, is to provide that degree of personalization.”

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