By Steve Hamm
In the coming era of cognitive systems, fundamental changes will be required at each level of technology–from nanotechnology to the software programming layer. These shifts will require remarkable feats of science and engineering. Yet it’s possible that even greater challenges will come as we go about harnessing the new technical capabilities and using them to solve the world’s most challenging problems. So it will be essential for tech companies like IBM to form deep collaborative partnerships with organizations that possess domain expertise, including those in health care, financial services, media and government.
This was one of the messages delivered by John E. Kelly III when he spoke last evening at the Computer History Museum in Silicon Valley. Kelly was interviewed by John Hollar, the museum’s president, in the institution’s Revolutionaries speakers’ series. Just minutes earlier, the two had participated in a photo-op in the museum’s new IBM Watson exhibit. IBM has donated the stage set it built for the Jeopardy TV quiz show, where Watson in 2011 defeated two past grand-champions.
(Kelly’s book about the new era, Smart Machines: IBM’s Watson and the Era of Cognitive Computing , will be published in the fall by Columbia University Press. To read a free chapter now, go to the Columbia University Press web site.)
Kelly believes that the world is on the cusp of a new era, when new kinds of computers will help people and organizations analyze huge volumes of data and penetrate complexity. Watson’s victory on Jeopardy represented a milestone on the path to the cognitive era.
On stage with Hollar, Kelly recounted the relationship that IBM forged with Mars Inc., maker of M&Ms and other popular chocolate candies. Executives from Mars had approached IBM in 2008 looking for help in solving disease problems that were threatening its supply of cocoa, the essential ingredient in chocolate. Together, in just two years, scientists from IBM and Mars used high-performance computing to decode the cocoa genome. The knowledge gained from the project is helping Mars and cocoa farmers develop methods for improving the health and yields of cocoa plants.
After Watson won on Jeopardy, everybody wondered what would be the next step for the technology. Kelly told a museum audience of more than 400 that he knew, “We needed strong partners to take Watson to the next level, like our partnership with Mars.” And, indeed, that’s the way it has worked out. IBM has partnerships with Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center and Cleveland Clinic in cancer treatment; with WellPoint in health care management; and with a handful of other organizations and companies.
Each human domain has it’s own “language,” not just the words that people within it use to express ideas, but processes for getting things done and even ways of thinking. In order to have impact in these areas, Watson and other cognitive computer programs and cloud services will have to learn how to decode the domain and interact with humans operating there in the ways that they’re most comfortable. The cognitive systems must be trained by experts and fed all of the relevant knowledge about the domain. Then the systems learn more as they interact with people and data.
Health care is the best example of how this is happening. IBM scientists and engineers are working with oncologists at Memorial Sloan Kettering to capture their expertise in Watson. Faculty and students at Cleveland Clinic Medical School are teaching Watson how they approach patient’s problems and correcting the system when it makes mistakes.
But there will be other important areas for collaboration, as well. For instance, IBM is working with The Nielsen Co. to use Watson technology to develop new and more effective ways of measuring the impact of marketing in the digital era.
Kelly told the museum crowd that we’re just at the start of a long journey. “We’re talking about a journey that will last the next 40 to 50 years,” he said. Which means there will be many partnerships coming for IBM, as well.