Interview with Steve Hamm, coauthor of Smart Machines: IBM’s Watson and the Era of Cognitive Computing

Smart Machines, Steve Hamm and John KellIn the following interview, Steve Hamm coauthor of Smart Machines: IBM’s Watson and the Era of Cognitive Computing, discusses cognitive computing and how it is changing the work and research being done at IBM and elsewhere:

Q: What is the era of cognitive computing?

Steve Hamm: John Kelly and other leaders at IBM believe that we’re on the cusp of a new era in computing. Scientists at IBM and elsewhere are creating machines that sense, learn, reason and interact with people in new ways. These machines will help people overcome our mental biases and penetrate complexity so we can make better decisions.

You can think of a cognitive system as a truly intelligent assistant that helps individuals live and work more successfully, and that helps organizations become more efficient and effective. The implications are huge for individuals, businesses and society as a whole. With these technologies, we will be able to make the world work better and more sustainably.

Q: Is IBM Watson a cognitive computer?

SH: Scientists in IBM Research see Watson as a transitional technology. Using machine learning, natural language processing and statistical techniques, they were able to achieve an amazing feat: to beat two past grand-champions at the TV quiz show Jeopardy! Watson represents a major first step toward the era of cognitive systems—and, in fact, the Watson technology of today is much improved over the technology that was showcased on Jeopardy!

However, scientists at IBM and elsewhere are working on advances in a wide range of technology fields, including learning systems, information management, and hardware systems design, which will ultimately produce computers that are very different from today’s machines. They will operate more like the human brain works, though they will be by no means a replacement for human intelligence. They’ll be extremely powerful yet also extremely power efficient.

Q: Why write the book now?

SH: The idea that we’re entering a new era of computing emerged over the past couple of years. It began when a small group of IBM Research scientists engaged in the mental exercise of envisioning how computing would evolve over the next century. They realized that, because of recent and anticipated advances in science and technology, computers of the future would be fundamentally different than the machines that evolved since the 1940s.

But revolutions don’t happen on a timetable. You need a forcing function to get things going. So the idea behind the book is to stimulate new thinking within industry and academia. Just as importantly, we hope to inspire university and high school students to pursue studies and careers in science, technology and mathematics. Amazing progress has been made in computing, but we believe a lot of effort by a lot of people and organizations will be needed for the era of cognitive computing to come on strong.

Q: What kinds of things will people do with cognitive systems?

SH: Think about any problem that involves a lot of data and complexity. One example that we lay out in the book could change the game in the pharmaceutical industry. Today, it takes anywhere from 10 to 15 years for a pharma company to develop a new drug, and it costs between $500 million and $1 billion. Using a cognitive system, a company’s researchers could size up millions of potential combinations molecules and then run simulations to see which of them have the potential to combat disease without introducing serious side-effects. This system could shave years and millions of dollars off what it takes to develop a new drug.

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