Big Data

Enhanced Collaboration in the Cognitive Era

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Today, 70 years after the first electronic computers were invented, most interactions between people and machines are conducted the old fashioned way: humans tap on tiny smartphone screens or type on computer keyboards.

Human-to-computer interactions are not typically intuitive, pro-active or exciting.

All of that’s must change as we move into the era of cognitive computing. Increasingly, cognitive computers will not only ingest vast quantities of information, reason over data, and learn from their experiences, but they’ll also interact with human beings in ways that are more natural to us.

We won’t have to adapt to their limitations. Instead, they’ll get new capabilities that enable them to meet our greater expectations—such as the ability to converse with us, to understand not only what we mean but what we need, and to present information to us in the ways that it’s most useful. They will not only understand me as an individual, but also the dynamics among my team members as we collaborate to solve problems.

Think of it as collaborative cognition.

A major step in this direction comes today with the announcement by IBM and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute of a joint research project aimed at enriching the interactions between humans and machines. Called the Cognitive Immersive Systems Lab, or CISL, it combines RPI’s deep experience with immersive environments with IBM’s expertise in cognitive computing.

We’re placing CISL in a marvelous facility at RPI’s campus in Troy, New York—the Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center (EMPAC). There, students, faculty members and visitors with expertise in the arts, sciences and technology influence each other by sharing the same facilities and digital technologies, and by taking on projects that bridge the gaps between them. People from IBM and RPI will use EMPAC’s reconfigurable collaboration spaces to jointly develop systems that combine immersive technologies with cognitive ones.

These kinds of interactions between humans and computers form the foundation of what we at IBM call augmented intelligence. While traditional artificial intelligence research is aimed at giving computers human-like capabilities, at IBM we’re focused on designing computer systems that augment human intelligence—helping people to solve practical problems better than we could in the past.

We believe that in the cognitive era computers and people will be able to achieve things by working together than neither could do as well on their own. Also, cognitive assistants will help humans interact with one another more effectively. They’ll improve human group dynamics.

Here’s a futuristic scenario of an M&A team in a corporation using a cognitive and immersive environment:

The researchers at RPI and EMPAC are natural partners for us because of their willingness to experiment with radical new approaches to getting things done. I have seen arts programs at EMPAC that were really mind blowing. In one, the audience and the performers switched positions, with the audience in the middle of the space, the performers around the periphery, and the two groups interacting with each other. The program challenged conventional wisdom about the role of an audience. That’s the kind of mindset you need when you’re rethinking the relationship between humans and machines

The CISL platform will be an immersive, interactive, reconfigurable physical environment that enhances group performance. Cognitive agents will be trained to have deep knowledge of particular domains. They’ll be present in the space, listening to what’s said, observing our body language, conversing with us, noting our biases and pro-actively making suggestions. They may take on a visible form—perhaps via holograms—so we have something to look at when we’re conversing with them. Interactions between cognitive agents and humans will be enhanced by a wide variety of information displays that can be acted on by humans via touch, gestures and verbal commands.

You can imagine a cognitive agent becoming so deeply engaged with a group activity that it actually develops a point of view about how to make a decision or solve a problem, and makes its case to the humans in the room using visual storytelling techniques. The agent might develop some alternatives to what the humans have discussed and present them to the group using a variety of displays and multimedia evidence.

One of the EMPAC projects that we’re most intrigued by is their Campfire technology. It’s based on the fact that small groups of people sitting around a campfire tend to have an intense focus on one thing and a willingness to share stories and ideas. It’s a conducive environment for getting things done. At EMPAC, people gather around a Campfire device—which is like a small circular out-of-ground swimming pool—and look at graphic displays on the sides and bottom. It’s a 3-D canvas upon which all sorts of information can be presented.

Campfire is just one of many display tools and modes of interaction with computers that are becoming available today. That means this is a great time to explore new possibilities.

To bring focus to the joint research we have decided to develop concrete scenarios—the corporate boardroom, the design studio, the doctor’s office and the classroom. Each setting involves intensive interactions between people tapping into large amounts of information. Think about a situation where a hospital’s tumor board meets to consider treatment of a particular patient’s cancer. That space might be outfitted with a specialized display that allows all them to view and manipulate a microscopic image of a tumor, or superimpose data on it. Or envision an aircraft manufacturing company planning a next-generation airliner. A wall-size display helps planners understand the contributions to the process of their entire global supply chain.

Over the coming decades, I believe that immersive cognitive environments will take hold within businesses, in healthcare, in government, and in homes. And they won’t just be in rooms. Elements of this vision will flourish in cars, stores and public spaces. Wherever and whenever we need to build bridges between humans and computers, immersive cognitive technologies will be there to do the job.

At last, spaces that know us, work with us, and inspire us.

——To learn more about the next era, read Smart Machines: IBM’s Watson and the Era of Cognitive Computing.

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