Depending upon whom you ask, the nascent field of cognitive computing is either the most important trend in technology since programmable computers, a massively intrusive spying tool that can lay bare our deepest secrets, or perhaps simply a powerful approach for processing diverse data sets to deliver insights that humans can understand.
In reality, the truth is some combination of all of the above – although everyone admits it’s still quite early days to make the final call. It’s not at all surprising, therefore, that the market is also quite confused about what cognitive computing really is.
An approachable definition: “if you look at cognitive computing as an analog to the human brain, you need to analyze in context all types of data, from structured data in databases to unstructured data in text, images, voice, sensors,and video,” according to the newbook Cognitive Computing and Big Data Analytics by Judith Hurwitz, Marcia Kaufman, and Adrian Bowles. “These are machines that operate at a different level than traditional IT systems because they analyze and learn from this data.”
An early pioneer in this space is IBM, whose cognitive computing cause célèbre Watson famously trounced the world’s best players at Jeopardy! in 2011. Now, IBM is shifting Watson’s focus to healthcare (among other industries).
“In the healthcare space, we’re approaching [Watson] as a support tool to expand the physician’s cognitive boundaries by giving them deeper access to much larger volumes of information,” according to IBM researcher Eric Brown. “A system like Watson can leverage the computer’s ability to deal with huge volumes of data, understand the knowledge that’s contained within this data, apply it to the problem the physician is trying to solve, give them different alternatives to consider, and in particular, the underlying evidence that supports those alternatives.”
Healthcare is not the end of the story, however. “That basic problem-solving pattern applies to a wide variety of industries,” Brown points out. In fact, Watson is more of a general purpose tool, depending upon the information people feed it in order to derive insights specific to particular domains.
Other cognitive computing vendors take a different approach. “We try to be industry and process specific, for example, focusing on chronic care in healthcare or guided insights for procurement,” explains Jacy Legault, VP of products at Cognitive Scale. “IBM Watson is more broad based and LEGO-like.”
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