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IBM Watson Points the Way to Our Cognitive Business Future

Where are you on your journey to become a cognitive business? PHOTO: David Cohen

What a difference a year makes. 

A year ago, almost 1,000 people attended the IBM World of Watson event in the New York City borough of Brooklyn. 

This year, the event moved to Las Vegas, where 17,000 attendees and another 3,000 people watched the live stream from the new T-Mobile arena. Over 120 countries were represented at the event across all industries. 

So what changed?

Watson Comes of Age

IBM engineers and researchers embarked with some trepidation on a journey 10 years ago to create a system that brings man and machine together to create a better world. The team, led by John Kelly, senior vice president at IBM (and nicknamed “the Godfather of Watson”), knew that building such an artificial intelligence (AI) system had eluded several generations of scientists over the previous 50 years. 

The highly-publicized Jeopardy moment was really the coming out for Watson. It took almost five years to ready Watson for its Jeopardy unveiling in February 2011. It was trained on all of Wikipedia and thousands of articles and books. But that was very much the beginning of the next era of computing. 

In the five years since Jeopardy, Watson has become pervasive in the world around us. It is helping improve cancer diagnostics to provide better health outcomes, increasing security, reimagining hospitality, unlocking culinary creativity, addressing global energy needs, helping you make smarter purchases, crafting cognitive fashion, making sense of the internet of things (IoT) and transforming education. 

What was once the realm of science fiction has become reality. AI is now in our smartphones, our cars, our homes.

Watson is at work in 45 countries, across 20 industries. It speaks nine languages and serves over 3 billion people.  

IBM has invested more than $15 billion in Watson. IBM is betting its 105-year-oldfuture on Watson. 

We are only a few years into this multi-decade journey. 

The 2007 Inflection Point

Author and New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman asserts that we are in the middle of three non-linear shifts in the market — globalization, technology and climate change — which together are driving massive accelerations and fundamentally reshaping the world.

When and how did this happen? 

2007 was an extraordinary year: Apple debuted the first iPhone, Facebook went global, Twitter was launched, Hadoop was born, Github launched, Android released, Airbnb was launched, Google bought YouTube, Palantir came out and much more. The cost of DNA sequencing per genome dropped significantly, cloud computing was born and the cost of bandwidth plummeted. In 2007, IBM launched Watson.

But then 2008 hit. And all the exuberance and excitement of these pioneering times came crashing down as global financial markets went into crisis. We basically missed the single largest technical inflection point in history. 

We are now in an era where the advancement of technology has surpassed the human ability to adapt it. The rate of change is so rapid that we can no longer, as humans, leverage the technologies fast enough. We need ways to learn faster, and govern smarter to get the most of these advancements. 

Enter the need to leverage technologies like artificial intelligence. 

The challenge now is how to make “AI: Artificial Intelligence” into “IA: Intelligent Assistant.”

Don’t Fear Artificial Intelligence 

Peter Diamandis, founder and chairman of the X Prize Foundation, co-founder and executive chairman of Singularity University, and co-author of the New York Times bestsellers “Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think” and “BOLD: How to Go Big, Create Wealth, and Impact the World” spoke at this year’s World of Watson about the challenge: 

“We are living in a time that is greater than any other time in human history. Technology is a force that takes things that used to be scary and now makes them abundant. Over the next 10 years, we can take the planet out of extreme poverty. Democracy is on the rise, education amongst the world’s populous is increasing, the cost of energy is dropping and we are living in the most peaceful time in history. These trends may not be evident in our day-to-day lives, which is why it is critical to look at data and assumptions. 

“There is no problem that can’t be solved. The tools that we have, driven by our passion and commitment, can slay any problems. Fundamentally, artificial intelligence is the most important tool we will ever create. It is the way we will solve our grand challenges. It has the potential to help create a world of haves in which everyone can have any future they want.”

At the end of his session, Diamandis noted he had launched an IBM Watson X Prize competition, which will reward teams who demonstrate how humans and AI can work together to tackle world problems like hunger, literacy, health, etc. A total of $5 million in prizes will be announced in April, 2020.

Co-Existing in a World with Watson

The inevitable is coming. AI and platforms like Watson will undoubtedly become mainstream and our ability to co-exist in an AI world will be critical. 

IBM president and CEO Ginni Rometty opened her World of Watson keynote proclaiming that, “in five years, there is no doubt in my mind that cognitive computing will impact every decision. Bringing cognitive capabilities to digital business will change the way we work and help solve the world’s biggest problems.”

The market is still catching up to this vision. 

The market growth for cognitive computing is now $32 billion, which marks a 16 time growth in the last four years. But really, cognitive is about making better business decisions — and the market for making better decisions is expected to be a $2 trillion market by 2025. 

When it comes to artificial intelligence, your goals matter. IBM has made several important architectural decisions around Watson. 

First, and probably most important, is that it’s about augmenting decisions, not replacing people. It’s about applying insights to make better decisions. 

The second is that the data belongs to the customer. Data is the lifeblood of most organizations. It’s a competitive weapon and it deserves to remain your intellectual property. Watson is where your data goes to learn but then it goes back home.  

Lastly, an ecosystem matters. Developers, entrepreneurs, iconic enterprises are all part of the ecosystem.  

Defining our future world with AI will require us to balance our goals and principles as a society with the evolution and capability of the technology. To accomplish this, it will require close collaboration between key players in the AI race. 

As a positive step towards this collaboration, Microsoft, Amazon, IBM, Google and Facebook announced in September the formation of the Partnership on Artificial Intelligence to Benefit People and Society. 

Forget Digital, Cognitive Business is the Future

A cognitive business marries digital business with digital intelligence. Digital was about transforming the “wiring” of your organization. Digital intelligence is about truly unleashing the power of insights to transform your business. It’s about transforming the way you do business by harnessing power of your data, automating decision making. 

Everywhere you turn, Watson is now impacting and — in many cases — transforming businesses. Hundreds of millions of people are now impacted by Watson. By the end of next year, it will hit 1 billion people. Watson is interacting with 200 million consumers in shopping, insurance, banking services, education and let’s not forget: the weather.

The question is, are you on the journey to become a cognitive business? 

Frank Palermo brings more than 22 years of experience in technology leadership across a wide variety of technical products and platforms. Frank has a wealth of experience in leading global teams in large scale, transformational application and product development programs.


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