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Cognitive systems: Linking the unimaginable to the imaginable

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In today’s world, many of us wonder about the effects of cognitive technology on our reality as well as its potential impact on the future.  Others have had similar musings on what’s possible.  Between 1899 & 1910 a group of French artists, including Jean-Marc Côté, depicted a vision of what the world would look like in the year 2000. What’s most amazing isn’t what they got wrong, but to the degree that they got some things right. Flying cars can be compared to the drones we know today, electric scrubbing of floors to our Roomba vacuums, and metal brain caps to students now connected using the internet, and more.

At the same time, Ladies Home Journal published an article by John Watkins Jr., “What May Happen in the Next 100 Years.”

“These prophecies will seem strange, almost impossible.  Yet they have come from the most learned and conservative minds in America. To the wisest and most careful men in our greatest institutions of science and learning I have gone, asking each in his turn to forecast for me what, in his opinion; will have been wrought in his own field of investigation before the dawn of 2001 – a century from now….”

These predictions sounded obscure, but many did come true. Today, the view of 100 years from now includes the perspectives of many women who have paved their own paths in the technology field.


A word that inspires us. Imagination tends to be referred to in terms of being creative – someone who has a great imagination – or mental imagery, picturing something in your head. It is quite possibly a uniquely human ability – it allows us to explore the ideas of things that are not in our present surroundings or are not even real.

Linking the unimaginable to the imaginable

On May 17, 2017 at the Corporate State Summit in Toronto, I shared the stage with NAO. NAO is a humanoid robot developed by SoftBank Robotics, a robotics company headquartered in Paris. NAO interacts with humans in a natural way with the ability to hear, speak and see. He is a pretty clever colleague – powered by Watson, IBM’s cognitive computing system.

I had just returned from a trip to Peru, where I visited Machu Picchu. This once-unimaginable place was uncovered by a professor at Yale University along with the National Geographic Society.

The land had been abandoned centuries after being built. It was never lost to the locals, but fortunately it was not found by the Spanish during Peru’s colonial period, which likely saved it.

Many of us try to imagine how ancient people constructed this site – with a degree of precision we cannot fathom, with no iron tools, yet stones were produced, cut to fit together without mortar. These terraces also housed a water supply system.  The abilities of the Incan people could be useful in today’s engineering and management of water!

The cognitive era

Today, most data being created is corporate data, hidden behind firewalls with unknown and untapped insights. The sheer volume of data exceeds what we as humans can process, and in many cases, what the traditional computer can process in a timely basis

I asked NAO how he would describe himself, a conversational robot born in the cognitive era. He responded “I can be the discoverer – understanding relationships between the vast amounts of information I have access to, in a very short period of time, and then be an advisor – to assist in drawing evidence based actions.”

This is not simply about programming machines or robots — rather cognitive is learning from experience, reason over data, forming a hypothesis, and applying judgement. Yet, what does this mean for us? For the workers, parents, patients? The examples are vast; from tax preparation, to healthcare information, to customer service and wealth management.

Letting computers make decisions that can be life-changing may sound scary, but just like the Inca didn’t build Machu Picchu without a set of guidelines aligned to their world, IBM has established principles for the cognitive era. We’ve developed an informed approach.

  1. Purpose: Augment human intelligence, with machines in service to humans.
  2. Transparency: Into who does the training, what data is used, industry/domain specifics and unique insights.
  3. Skills: work with students, workers, citizens to acquire the skills and knowledge to engage.

Businesses move quickly, but cognitive computing moves even faster. I believe having an IT infrastructure that can deliver high-performance results is the key to uncovering these insights and accelerating decisions from structured and unstructured big data.

Learn more about how IBM delivers on the promise of IT infrastructure for cognitive business.

VP - Storage Solutions, North America

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