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Cognitive Computing: If I Only Had A(Nother) Brain
Volume 40, Number 1 - January/February 2016

Issues and impacts

As with any new technology, the gee whiz factor gets the attention, but the impact that it will have on our lives lags far behind technology development. We are talking about a big change in computing systems. These technologies will creep into existing products such as search engines and BI systems. They already have begun. But they will disrupt existing products on the market. They will disrupt services such as investment advisory services, insurance brokerages, travel, or medicine. Even taxi services may be disrupted as cognitive systems become embedded in self-driving cars.

Beyond these obvious impacts, though, we have some serious questions that will need answers before information disasters strike:

  1. How do cognitive systems differ from humans? Should we trust them?
  2. Can cognitive systems replace people? Should they? In what circumstances?
  3. Who is responsible for a wrong diagnosis?
  4. How will we design systems that reflect the degree of uncertainty (the confidence score) clearly so that people don’t accept something that is more risky than they want.
  5. If more individualized interactions give us better service, how far should we trust retailers to collect and mine our behavior: purchases, comments, returns, preferences, etc.? What should they be allowed to do with our information?
  6. What processes must we require to give us recourse?

Conclusion: Why Buying Into Cognitive Systems Makes Sense

Cognitive computing will change how people interact with computers. Instead of having to get around the rigidity of data warehouses and schemas, users will come to expect the ease of human discussion, augmented by human-like pattern finding and coupled with the depth and variety of Big Data for broad knowledge. We are already inching in this direction. We navigate new places by depending on map applications. We order movies and books based on computer-generated recommendations. Each of our interactions feeds back to the application so that it learns and improves.

Cognitive systems will coexist with legacy systems into the indefinite future. Many cognitive systems will build upon today’s IT resources. But the ambition and reach of cognitive computing are fundamentally different. Cognitive computing extends human understanding by adding the ability to crunch more data more quickly, by detecting patterns the brain might reject because of its biases. Computers never get tired. They don’t get embarrassed. We need to add these capabilities to our arsenal of tools for making sense of the real world.

Cognitive computing is the next inevitable step in the evolution of computers from calculators to intelligent assistants. To reach this stage, however, technology is not enough. The goal must be that the technology will be constantly available, but invisible to the user. Tomorrow’s cognitive systems will extend human capabilities and allow us to see more widely and more accurately across more digital information. These technologies will be embedded all along the path of a given task. They will be aware of the process and the user’s place in it. They will support the task appropriately with the right information, with discoveries in the data and suggestions for the next best step. They will converse with us to explore the possible and predict the unimaginable. Above all, they will become the other half of a more powerful sentient being.

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Sue Feldman is CEO of Synthexis (, a business advisory service for search, text analytics and cognitive computing software vendors and buyers. She writes and speaks frequently on these topics.


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