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IBM Watson: Core of the cognitive revolution

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Big Data Evangelist, IBM

Thinking. It's as natural as breathing, but that doesn't mean that any of us think or breathe as well as we possibly can.

For me, personally, yoga is the secret to better breathing. But how can we think better? We can educate ourselves, of course. We can also avail ourselves of all the expert guidance at our disposal, thereby sharpening our ability to think through the toughest problems.

Cognitive computing

Scientists refer to thinking as "cognition," and they've been studying it for a long time from many perspectives. Generally, cognition refers to those modes of thought that are conscious, critical, logical, perceptive, attentive, reasoning, analytical, evaluative and learning. Their inner workings can be understood at the level of psychology or neurology.

IBM Watson.pngCognition can even be modeled as an information processing function. This, in fact, was the genesis of modern computer science, pioneered most notably by such prominent thinkers as Alan Turing, John McCarthy and Marvin Minsky. The development of "artificial intelligence" techniques has depended greatly on advances in computing architectures. And it's no coincidence that IBM founder Thomas J. Watson made "Think" the motto of the leading vendor in the burgeoning information technology industry. Computers have been seen as the ultimate "thinking machines" from the start.

At IBM, we refer to the platform that bears our founder's name as a "cognitive computing" platform for the same reason. IBM Watson is a superior thinking machine for the new era of big data. Watson incorporates natural language processing (NLP) techniques that we initially developed in the 1950s. However, Watson's true birth started in IBM Research in the mid-2000s, and then picked up steam as the big data era got underway. The platform incorporates diverse technologies, including NLP, statistical analysis, machine learning, big data, multistructured data integration, semantic Web and conversational engagement optimization.

The world at large first became aware of Watson in its February 2011 appearance on the "Jeopardy!" game show. However, that was just the beginning of its public coming-out. IBM has made Watson's technology the foundation of our cloud-facing strategy, and has since that time rolled out a growing range of Watson-based solutions for diverse markets, including healthcare, finance, multichannel customer engagement and more.

What exactly is Watson?

At heart, Watson is a cognitive computing platform that can derive insights algorithmically from fresh streams of big data. Watson can radically accelerate data-driven reasoning processes and learn constantly from fresh feeds of new data and from interactions with humans. It has the ability to learn from its interactions with the domain experts who build and refine its machine-learning algorithms, and also from anyone who can engage it in a natural-language dialogue. Just as important, Watson can acquire new knowledge from diverse data feeds and interactions without need for explicit programming. It can learn and interact naturally with people to extend what either humans or machines can do on their own.

In my forthcoming presentation at IBM Insight 2014, I will discuss the central role of cognitive computing in the big data revolution, with a specific emphasis on its role in business intelligence and decision support. I will present on the full historical perspective of cognitive computing, stretching from the tabulating systems era (hardwired processing logic), through the programmable systems era (software-explicit processing logic) and up to the present cognitive systems era (data-derived processing logic). I will also go into depth on how we've architected the cognitive computing technology at Watson's heart, and I will spell out how Watson figures into IBM's expanding portfolio of information management and cloud solutions.

We look forward to seeing you at Insight- join us there!