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IBM Watson and the power of conversation in the cognitive fabric

June 26, 2014

People turn to advisers for many reasons. Often, it's because the adviser has special knowledge and expertise that you yourself lack. But just as often, it's because they impart their advice in a manner that gives you confidence in the matter at hand. You turn to these sorts of advisers even if they themselves are not, in an objective sense, any more qualified than you on the topic. Bosom buddies and BFFs fall into this category.

Confidence in close personal advisers rides on the fact that your minds and hearts are on the same wavelength. To sustain this level of intimate engagement, you pay special attention to the quality of the relationships you maintain with your personal advisers. Perhaps you're married to them, were born into the same family or have been living in the same neighborhood since you were kids. Of the many factors that shape the quality of your relationships with these people, the need to sustain mutually beneficial conversations is paramount. If you simply stop communicating for whatever reason, the relationship suffers, perhaps fatally.

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Image courtesy of Openclipart and used with permission

Maybe you, like many people in modern society, lack any specific individual whose words of wisdom you heed in matters large and small. You might turn, instead, to your social networks, to online services or even your smartphone for guidance in what products to buy (or not), what medications might cure your ills (or not) and so on. If that's the case, the conversations might become increasingly shallow (sadly, the fate of many Facebook discussions, even with family members and close friends). Or they might become one-sided—in other words, it's mostly you talking to yourself while you surf the web.

There's a risk in all this, though. Those of us who are uncomfortable with real human engagement might prefer to engage primarily with real-enough virtual advisers, much like the protagonist in the recent movie "Her." If you use these apps and services to engage with your bank, your local coffee shop and other local retail establishments, the feeling of technology-mediated alienation might be kept at bay by the fact that you can usually drop into their closest branch for a dose of human contact.

Even if you don't avail yourself of that option, many such apps and services are designed to give you a stylized sense of virtual human engagement. Typically, modern apps incorporate a conversational-feeling user experience, leveraging design elements such as synthesized voice prompts. But that conversational feeling wouldn't be convincing if the apps didn't tap into a cognitive computing fabric, such as IBM Watson, that simulates how real human advisers really think under various circumstances.

Truth be told, you are probably relying on virtual, digital and online advisers in more ways than you realize, though they are often embedded in the decision-automation and personalization infrastructures that drive many online business services.

In recognition of this trend, IBM recently acquired Cognea, a startup vendor of virtual digital assistant software, and announced plans to integrate those features into the cognitive-computing fabric of Watson. The acquisition of Cognea follows closely on IBM's announcement of its investment in startup Fluid, developer of a Watson-based online "personal shopping concierge" application.

Conversational fluency is fundamental to consumer adoption of personal adviser applications such as these. Last year, I blogged on the potential for cognitive-computing fabrics, such as Watson, to drive harmonious conversations in multichannel customer environments. Rather than rely on programs that predetermine every answer or action needed to perform a function or set of tasks, cognitive fabrics leverage artificial intelligence and machine learning algorithms that sense, predict, infer and, if they drive machine-to-human dialogues, converse.

And conversational engagement is fundamental to Watson realizing its core value as a data-driven decision-support tool for disparate business, consumer and other applications.

Conversational naturalness has been a key design feature of Watson from the start, as anybody who saw its "Jeopardy!" coming-out appearance will attest.

To the extent that you come to regard Watson, and the ecosystem of personal digital advisers that rely on Watson's cognitive fabric, as friends you can turn to for guidance in important decisions, it will have passed the most meaningful Turing test of all.