By Michael Rhodin
When IBM’s original Watson computer competed and won on the TV quiz show Jeopardy!, it demonstrated to an audience of millions how a computer could understand the rules of a game and quickly retrieve facts from a vast storehouse of information.
That question-answering skill is a key element of what we call the era of cognitive computing. It is already beginning to impact whole domains of human endeavor, starting with the way physicians treat diseases. And it’s improving the productivity of business—by beginning to transform online shopping and customer service.
Then along came Chef Watson. At the South by Southwest festival in Austin last March, IBM technologists and chefs from the Institute for Culinary Education served dishes based on recipes dreamed up by Watson. Huge crowds lined up for samples at a fire-engine-red IBM Watson Food Truck.
For the first time, the general public was exposed to another aspect of cognitive computing: the ability of machines to discover knowledge that was not known before and to collaborate with humans to create brand new things—in this case food recipes that were adventurous, surprising and tasty.
Chef Watson is so much fun that it may seem trivial to some, but it demonstrates a powerful new force that’s being unleashed. Think of it as a discovery engine. And think of such engines as essential players in a new age of discovery.
Five centuries ago, intrepid sailors set off in tiny ships on journeys into the unknown, ushering in an explosion of geographic exploration that reshaped societies and planted the seeds for today’s global economy. Their travels were enabled by an essential tool for navigation—the sextant.
Today, enterprising individuals and organization are launching similar journeys. Scientists, engineers, researchers and analysts from a wide variety of fields are taping new technologies to explore another world–that of information. Watson’s discovery technologies are among those tools. The latest gene sequencing machines are another. There will be more.
IBM has combined concepts and technologies from a variety of research projects to create IBM Watson Discovery Advisor, an integrated package of technologies that’s delivered as a cloud service. The technology essentially makes a map of information by reasoning over patterns it “sees” in available data. It fills in the blanks on the data map. Or, to bust the metaphor, it connects the dots between pieces of related information. In this way, raw information is transformed into new knowledge.
At the same time, Watson Discovery Advisor will incorporate Watson question-answering capabilities, optimized for discovery. After people create new insights, they can engage in dialogues with the system to clarify their thinking and test propositions. The idea is that humans will collaborate with machines in new ways that deliver better results than people or computers could produce on their own.
This new capability has the potential to transform industries and professions. The low hanging fruit includes law, pharmaceuticals, biotech, education, chemicals, metals, scientific research, engineering, and criminal investigations. In fact, these technologies will be useful in research and analysis of any complex field where practitioners face the threat of becoming overwhelmed with data.
This isn’t pie-in-the-sky-thinking. We already have a number of clients testing the technology. One of them is using a Watson system that contains 40 million documents, ingests an average of 27,000 new documents per day, and provides insights for thousands of users.
Here are some scenarios for how discovery technologies can help change the game in industries and professions:
- Pharmaceuticals: Drug development researchers can use the technologies to understand more deeply the biology of diseases. For example, Johnson & Johnson is teaching the computer to read and understand scientific papers that detail clinical trial outcomes—using that new knowledge to evaluate and develop medications. Down the line, this will help doctors match a drug with a patient, maximizing effectiveness and minimizing negative side effects.
While these initiatives are just beginning, Baylor College of Medicine, working with IBM Research scientists, has demonstrated that Watson can dramatically cut down on the time it takes to identify new drug candidates. In a matter of weeks, they spotted six proteins with the potential for modifying p53, a protein often associated with cancer. In contrast, using traditional methods, scientists have averaged only one such discovery per year.
- Chemistry: Companies making chemicals or materials can use discovery technologies to understand the interactions of chemical compounds at the molecular level. That will help them to more quickly identify combinations of molecules that will produce the qualities they’re looking for, such as durability and flexibility.
- Law: Law firms can use cognitive systems to ingest vast storehouses of statutes, journal articles and court rulings, allowing lawyers to search for useful precedents, information about judges, and novel strategies. Associates can use the systems as tutors to hone their skills in a particular legal domain.
You might notice that several of these industries and professions follow the apprenticeship model for developing talent. In addition to helping highly-skilled professionals discover new knowledge and invent new things, discovery technologies can help teach less experienced people—guiding them to best practices, answering their questions, and helping them develop the patterns and disciplines of thought that will be essential to success in their careers.
At the risk of being accused of being hyperbolic, I believe that these new discovery technologies have the potential of doing nothing less than free people’s minds. In our everyday lives, we’re bound by prejudices, habits of thought and the limits of our experience and knowledge. But what if we have a tool, an advisor, a mentor, that can help us break through those barriers and see the world and its possibilities in new ways? Cognitive computing can do that for us. In that way, it’s almost magical.
When I think about the future and the role of technology in shaping it, I believe progress will be made through the combined efforts of millions of innovators. So I’m issuing a challenge to everyone who shares my optimism about this new era of discovery and who wants to play a part.
Start each morning by asking yourself a simple question: “What will I discover today?”
If you want to learn more about this topic, read Smart Machines: IBM’s Watson and the Era of Cognitive Systems.