Don’t be afraid of cognitive computing, experts say

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The term “cognitive computing” may seem futuristic and even a little mysterious to many consumers today. But forward-thinking business leaders are already deploying systems that learn, reason and interact, and the future is quickly becoming the present. IDC, the IT market intelligence firm, predicts that by 2018, “half of all consumers will interact with services based on cognitive computing on a regular basis.”

It’s not just about processing speed

Science fiction movies and novels have long played on fears of sophisticated machines that might compete with humans and “win.” The reality, according to top academics who study the history and context of artificial intelligence and machine learning (two components of cognitive computing), is that when cognitive computing systems are used, humans are the ones who “win.” That is because cognitive computing is an extension of human intelligence. It can augment human research efforts by analyzing huge amounts of data faster than people can analyze the same information. (IBM’s Watson, for instance, is a cognitive computer than can process up to 60 million pages of text per second).

But it’s not just about processing speed. Cognitive systems analyze information in ways that mimic how people analyze the same content. That’s because these systems are precisely programmed to process information in the ways that we do. They do our work for us, faster than we can, so we as humans can perform more and perform better. Think of how a car or plane can transport us more quickly than our feet do, and so improve the speed of our physical journeys. The output of cognitive computing analyses of large data sets can potentially lead to quicker, yet more informed decision-making for C-suite executives.

Helping entire organizations evolve

One of the most positive ways to frame advancements in cognitive computing is to consider its benefits as a completely new form of computing. In other words, separate the idea of cognitive systems from more traditional perceptions of machines as competitors. Instead, think of them as helpful collaborators. As Thomas Malone, the Patrick H. McGovern Professor of Management at the MIT Sloan School of Management, told THINK Leaders, “We’re still in the fairly early stages, but in the future computers will increasingly be able to help take actions on our behalf, not just give us information. It’s certainly possible in principle and becoming more possible in practice to have computational intelligence–to do things like what intelligent humans would do or in some cases even things that humans couldn’t do.”

Malone, who founded the MIT Center for Collective Intelligence, adds that he and his colleagues frame cognitive computing as a means for helping entire organizations evolve. For chief human resources officers, chief operations officers and chief executive officers, access to cognitive computing can help them reshape their companies by providing fresh ways of solving challenges that face corporations in truly objective and efficient ways.

“One of our core research questions at our MIT Center for Collective Intelligence is, ‘How can people and computers be connected so that collectively they act more intelligently than any person, group or computer has ever done before?,’” Malone told THINK Leaders. “It’s a very provocative question that leads us in new directions—pointing to very different organizations than we have now…I think man-versus-machine is in some ways the traditional way of looking at this question, but I think where we’re really headed towards man-plus-machine.”

Keeping up with cognitive

Malone’s MIT colleague Erik Brynjolfsson, co-author with Andrew McAffee of the book The Second Machine Age, cautions that executives and their employees should be afraid not of advancements in cognitive computing, but instead of not keeping up with it. As Brynjolfsson, a professor of information technology and director of the MIT Center for Digital Business at Sloan, told THINK Leaders, “[some] organizations are not transforming their businesses fast enough to keep up with the pace of technological change. Businesses have a surfeit of labor in areas technology will soon make obsolete, but they have a shortage of labor in areas tied to the digital economy and it is in those areas where breakthrough innovation and profitability will be centered ultimately.”

Outside of academia, veteran business leaders believe it’s imperative to at least become familiar with what cognitive computing is capable of, because they are seeing more and more researchers consistently dedicating time and energy on developing it. Ann Winblad, the co-founder and managing director of storied Silicon Valley venture capital firm Hummer Winblad Venture Partners, told THINK Leaders that machine learning and its extension, cognitive computing, “is vital to our future digital mastery.” Like many trend watchers who have experience on monetizing the next big thing, Winblad points to universities and R&D institutions as the vanguard in cognitive. “Much of the work is happening in algorithm labs, in university computational labs across the country, and within research groups. So it’s going to come, and it will change the way we do business,” she observes. Note that she says the way “we” do business, meaning, of course, we humans.


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