By Bernard Meyerson
It’s amazing when you look back over the 60+ years of the computing revolution and see how far we have come in such a relatively short time. The first electronic programmable computers, built in the 1940s, were essentially really fast electronic calculators. Then came the mainframe, the PC, the Internet and social networking. Today, we’re entering the era of cognitive computing–machines that help us think.
IBM’s Watson marks a turning point. The former Jeopardy! TV quiz show champ is now reading millions of pages of medical text in preparation for going to work in healthcare. But while Watson can understand all manner of things and learns from its interactions with data and humans, it is just a first step into a new era of computing that’s going to produce machines that are as distinct from today’s computers as those computers are from the mechanical tabulating devices that preceded them. A host of technologies are coming that will help us overcome our limitations and will transform the way we interact with machines and with each other.
One of the most intriguing aspects of this shift is our ability to give machines some of the capabilities of the right side of the human brain. New technologies make it possible for machines to mimic and augment the senses. Today, we see the beginnings of sensing machines in self-parking cars and biometric security–and the future is wide open. This year, we focused the IBM Next 5 in 5, our 2012 forecast of inventions that will change your world in the next five years, on how computers will mimic the senses:
Touch: You will be able to reach out and touch through your phone
Sight: A pixel will be worth a thousand words
Hearing: Computers will hear what matters
Taste: Digital taste buds will help you to eat healthier
Smell: Computers will have a sense of smell
Join the Twitter conversation at #ibm5in5. Click here to vote on the coolest predictions, and check back on the blog Dec. 21 for the results.
These five predictions show how cognitive technologies can improve our lives, and they’re windows into a much bigger landscape –the coming era of cognitive systems. The world is tremendously complex. We face challenges in deciphering everything from the science governing tiny bits of matter to the functioning of the human body to the way cities operate to how weather systems develop. Gradually, over time, computers have helped us understand better how the world works. But, today, a convergence of new technologies is making it possible for people to comprehend things much more deeply than ever before, and, as a result, to make better decisions.
At IBM, we have been talking about these new capabilities for the past four years under the rubric of our Smarter Planet agenda. We believe that the combination of instrumentation, interconnectivity and computing intelligence makes it possible to manage the natural and human systems of the world more efficiently and effectively. Well, think of the coming era of cognitive systems as the Smarter Planet agenda on steroids.
In the coming years, computers will become even more adept at dealing with complexity. Rather than depending on humans to write software programs that tell them what to do, they will program themselves so they can adapt to changing realities and expectations. They’ll learn by interacting with data in all of its forms–numbers, text, video, etc. And, increasingly, they’ll be designed so they think more like the humans.
Today, if you put a robotic track inspector in a railroad tunnel and equipped it with a video camera, it would not know what to make of an oncoming train. But what if you enabled it to sense things more like humans do–not just vision from the video camera but the ability to detect the rumble of the train and the whoosh of air? And what if you enabled it to draw inferences from the evidence that it observes, hears and feels? That would be one smart computer–a machine that would be able to get out of the way before the train smashed into it.
IBM Research is taking the lead in producing some of the scientific advances that will enable the big shift to cognitive computing. A team at our lab in San Jose, Calif., for instance, is designing a chip that’s based on the architecture of the brain that could become the brains of the railroad robot. The goal is to create a system that analyzes complex data from multiple senses at once, but also dynamically rewires itself as it interacts with its environment–all the while rivaling the brain’s compact size and low energy usage. Our lead researcher on the project, Dharmendra Modha, envisions being able to package the computational power of a human brain in a container the size of a shoe box.
But the point isn’t to replicate human brains. We humans are no slouches when it comes to procreation. And this isn’t about replacing human thinking with machine thinking. Once again; not necessary. Rather, in the era of cognitive systems, humans and machines will collaborate to produce better results–each bringing their own superior skills to the partnership. The machines will be more rational and analytic. We’ll provide the judgment, empathy, morale compass and creativity.
Indeed, in my view, cognitive systems will help us overcome the “bandwidth” limits of the individual human.
–Limits to our ability to deal with complexity. We have difficulty processing large amounts of information that comes at us rapidly. We also have problems understanding the interactions of the elements of large systems–such as all of the moving parts in the global economy. With cognitive computing, we will be able to harvest insights from huge quantities of data, understand complex situations, make accurate predictions about the future, and anticipate the unintended consequences of actions.
–Limits to our expertise. This is especially important when we’re trying to address problems that cut across intellectual and industrial domains. With the help of cognitive systems, we will be able to see the big picture and make better decisions. These systems can learn and tell us things we didn’t even ask for.
–Limits to our objectivity. We all possess biases based on our personal experiences, our egos and emotions, and our intuition about what works and what doesn’t. Cognitive systems can help remove our blinders and make it possible for us to have clearer understandings of the situations we’re in.
–Limits to our senses. We can only take in and make sense of so much stuff. With cognitive systems, computer sensors teamed with analytics engines will vastly extend our ability to gather and process sense-based information.
I don’t believe that cognitive systems will usurp the role of human thinkers. Rather, they’ll make us more capable and more successful–and, hopefully, better stewards of the planet.