Cognitive Computing Primer — Pt1: Introduction

Deep Blue, Siri, ‘Chatbot’ Tay, and Watson — a procession of artificial intelligence (AI) agents.

IBM’s Deep Blue famously beat Chess Grandmaster Garry Kasparov in 1997. IBM’s Watson was successful in unseating the long-standing Jeopardy! champion Ken Jennings in 2011, and today, Apple’s Siri and Microsoft’s Chatbot Tay demonstrate an uncanny ability to interact with humans in conversation (to the extent that Microsoft was forced to retire Tay after users succeeded in teaching ‘her’ to utter racist comments).

IBM is now marketing a number of business solutions under the Watson brand, so ushering in the era of ‘cognitive computing’.

Cognitive computing seeks to relate to the world in human terms — using models understand real-world concepts and reasoning that is based on this knowledge . The idea is to eradicate the need for humans to express problems using the strict formal constructs that computers understand and interact instead with machines in ways that feel more natural.

Traditional computer programming involves coding prescriptive or ‘deterministic’ rules that represent a logical flow of actions — something similar to a baking recipe. The consequence of this is that someone has already ‘determined’ all the actions the computer could carry out based on the data fed into the system. If all goes to plan, there should be no surprises, and the benefit of the computer is merely its ability to follow instructions and process data at speeds that are far greater than a human counterpart could muster.

Cognitive computing is very different. Gone are the fixed rules for solving a problem and, though there are still programs and rules, these are used to encode all the conditions necessary to allow the computer to learn and ‘think’ for itself. The computer learns by experience and finds better ways to use its cumulative knowledge to answer questions posed by humans.

To some extent, this is the state-of-the-art as represented in the AI technologies that underpin, for example, Watson and Siri. However, this is only the start of what it means to have truly ‘cognitive’ computing. Researchers have already proposed designs for a new generation of learning and thinking machines that, if successfully implemented, will eclipse current ‘domain-dependent’ AI capabilities. This new movement is summed up in the words of the AGI Society — an organisation that promotes the study of Artificial General Intelligence:

Artificial General Intelligence (AGI) is an emerging field aiming at the building of “thinking machines”; that is, general-purpose systems with intelligence comparable to that of the human mind (and perhaps ultimately well beyond human general intelligence). While this was the original goal of Artificial Intelligence (AI), the mainstream of AI research has turned toward domain-dependent and problem-specific solutions; therefore it has become necessary to use a new name to indicate research that still pursues the “Grand AI Dream”. Similar labels for this kind of research include “Strong AI”, “Human-level AI”, etc.

Understanding cognitive computing requires that we depart from the comfortable world of today’s relational databases and deterministic programming languages, and venture down the ‘rabbit hole’ of some very different ways of representing and processing information.

In keeping with the theme of a primer for Cognitive Computing, the next part will summarise the main ideas that exist for representing ‘real-world’ knowledge, and for generating conclusions (or reasoning) based on this knowledge.


This article was first publish on LinkedIn.

Author: Jason Edge

I combine an active (and noisy) family life with two other great passions:

Data — I have never been in any doubt about the power of data! I wrestled the early web browsers into submission to deliver real-time data-driven financial systems (The frameworks to do this are now commonplace). I also developed a code generator that built web applications from databases. I recently led the team that developed the Data Management Strategy (including detailed policies and standards) for the Abu Dhabi Government.

Music — a musician and conductor, I relish directing music groups to lift music off the page and bring it alive. At the age of 12, I was recognised by the UK’s national media as the country’s youngest official church organist. I consider this present flirtation with corporate life to be a momentary distraction from my childhood aspiration to be a Cathedral Organist!

I’m currently co-authoring a book on Crossing the Data Delta.

The Data Delta is the chasm between the data organisations have and the business people that need to use it (due for release soon).

The views in this article are my own, and may not reflect the views of my employers at Entity Group. Connect with me on LinkedIn.