Cognitive Computing

The talk is going to be about the cognitive computing era,’ says Dr Guruduth Banavar, addressing the topic of his 2017 BCS/IET Turing Lecture. Over the past few years, he explains, we’ve witnessed the establishment of a new era in computing – the age of machine learning. And, as we move into this new age, the resulting technical, professional and societal changes will be profound.

Rounding off his summary, Dr Banavar asserts: ‘It means having a very different relationship with machines. We’ll need to start getting used to having machines with us, to having natural conversations with them, and get used to the idea that they’ll be doing a lot of tasks in every part of our lives.’

Dawn of a third age
If you’re a student of such things, the Tabulating Systems Era began in the early 1900s and ran to the 1950s. The Programmable Systems Era – the if and then epoch – began in the 1950s and has served us well. It’s the foundation of much of the digital world that surrounds us.

A career in technology
Born in India, Dr Banavar spent the first half of his life there before moving to the United States. ‘I did my graduate school in the US and, after my PHD, I joined IBM at the TJ Watson research centre’ he recalls. ‘Since then, I’ve held a number of very interesting roles at IBM.’

The motivation to speak
So, why did Dr Banavar take on the challenge of speaking at the 2017 Turing Lecture? ‘Turing is one of my heroes’, he enthuses. ‘His vision of what computers can do… things like the Turing Test. It measures the limits of what computers can do. These things have always been a guiding light and are very relevant to my work.

Meeting a thinking machine
IBM’s work, and a big part of Dr Banavar’s career, have been focussed on Watson – a machine learning and natural language processing platform named after IBM’s founder, Thomas John Watson Senior.
Watson gained prominence in the popular consciousness when it won at the US game show Jeopardy!. The 2011 victory was an important proof of concept and, since then, Watson has developed many new skills.

What can cognitive do?
Cognitive computing platforms like Watson, Dr Banavar is keen to point out, aren’t intended to replace workers. Rather, the cognitive computing revolution is all about computers and humans working together.

How does Watson work?
To achieve all of this, Watson is constantly ingesting huge amounts of knowledge. When the system is asked a question it finds answers that are likely to be correct by exploring this ever growing corpus of information.
‘When a prescribed time limit has passed’, Dr Banavar explains, ‘the systems stops all the algorithms that are looking for answers and presents all of the likely solutions in a probabilistic fashion. We then use a number of different scoring techniques. They look at the accuracy of the inference and the credibility of sources. At the end of that process is a set of answers with confidence levels.’