THINKPolicy #10: Considering the Future and Benefits of Cognitive Computing

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Human + Machine Collaboration for the Advancement of Humankind

It seems like almost every day a new headline warns us that artificial intelligence (AI) will soon take over the world, or at the very least steal jobs. Even when AI is not in the news, Hollywood offers up a steady stream of entertainment that depicts a very near future in which life as we know it is threatened by super-intelligent machines.

These scenarios have something in common: they oversimplify and misrepresent an important and broader set of transformative technologies that hold great promise for business and society. They indulge in fantasy rather than take into account a rational and better-informed dialogue currently underway in the scientific, policy and business communities about what we consider the third age of computing – the cognitive era.

What is Cognitive Computing
Cognitive computing — of which AI is but one part – refers to an entirely new class of technologies whose purpose is to deepen human engagement, scale and elevate expertise, enable new products and services, and enhance exploration and discovery. Cognitive systems can understand massive and constantly growing amounts of data, reason and extract insights, continually learn and then interact with people naturally. They will give society an unparalleled ability to make smarter, informed decisions. And what many don’t realize is that these capabilities already are part of our daily lives.


Unlike early forays into AI – efforts to mimic humans – cognitive systems such as IBM’s Watson are specifically designed to augment human intelligence, to work side-by-side with human experts as tools for enhanced decision-making. The sheer volume of data being generated by the world is creating a form of cognitive overload for professionals and consumers alike, and these systems excel at harnessing and making that data useful.  This need is especially pressing in data-intensive domains such as healthcare, finance, insurance and education, as well as emerging areas such as the “Internet of Things.”

Debunking AI Myths
Policymakers seeking to better understand this technology and future opportunities would do well to study a newly released report from the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation (ITIF) that debunks common myths associated with these technologies, including:

  1. AI will destroy jobs;
  2. AI will make us stupid;
  3. AI will destroy our privacy;
  4. The complexity of AI will enable bias and abuse, and;
  5. AI will take over the human race.

The response to all of these concerns is, in one word, “no.”  Or, in three words, “not even close.”

In this new world of cognitive computing, humans and machines work better together than individually. By helping us expand the scale of human expertise to solve a whole new class of problems, a collaboration between man and machine boosts productivity, fosters new discoveries, and frees up resources that could be put to better use doing tasks beyond the reach of digital systems.

Consider the work that radiologists do daily as one example in which cognitive computing could have tremendous impact. These skilled professionals review large volumes of medical images for hours on end, looking for the slightest anomalies that might indicate disease. Their work is critically important. Cognitive technology could, for example, help enable efficient workflow and physician decision-making by prioritizing a radiologist’s work list based on identifying images of interest.

This is just one example of the benefits that can be achieved when cognitive systems are deployed in specific domains, but it highlights the potential of this promising technology to revolutionize how work gets done.

Policy Considerations For Cognitive
Since the beginning of time, every transformative tool that humans have created – from the wheel to the steam engine and the microprocessor – has augmented human capabilities. As with these beneficial developments, society’s guiding principle should be to approach cognitive computing with appropriate checks and balances that encourage innovation while protecting humankind’s best interests.

Right now, policymakers can take two concrete steps towards seizing that potential:

  • Learn Beyond the Headlines – Given the hype around AI, papers such as the one published recently by ITIF can be a tremendous resource for policymakers looking to understand the reality of the technology, how it is progressing, how it is being applied and how social concerns have been recognized and can be addressed.
  • Focus on Skills – We must educate and train people with the high-tech skills that will be required in a new era of data intense jobs. Today’s education systems are fundamentally misaligned from the needs of the labor market, and society needs refreshed curriculum and career training programs to fill the new and better paying jobs that will become available as a result of advances in cognitive systems.
    • IBM is working to address this skills challenge through programs and partnerships like P-TECH, a new approach to high school that prepares students for college or high-tech jobs, but more remains to be done.
    • We are also working with colleges and universities around the world to help them understand and use Watson as well as helping academia update their curricula in quick fashion and conduct research with cognitive computing.
    • In parallel, and as government officials begin to explore legislative and regulatory considerations for the cognitive era, IBM is convening a community of business, academic, economic and government experts to probe areas of policy overlap and develop a robust agenda to encourage the growth of this exciting technology while establishing reasonable and essential social protections.

These are critically important conversations that will impact how nations work, compete and thrive for decades to come. Just as we did with the advent of mainframes, personal computers and electronic business, IBM will play a leading voice in this global dialogue. We are first and foremost technology optimists – and we are confident that cognitive systems will make our world a better place to live and work.

Padilla-Chris_Photo.jpgBy Christopher A. Padilla, Vice President,

 IBM Government and Regulatory Affairs






Media Contact:
Adam R. Pratt
Ph: (202) 551-9625

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