There are two types of technology. The first is the moon rocket, the extraordinary achievement that blows the mind of anybody who sees it. Think of the Apollo programme, of Neil Armstrong taking those first steps on the moon. The second is the humble and every-day. It’s the washing machine or the paper clip. This second type may not capture headlines but is endlessly useful. Another example – thanks to the cognitive revolution – is a smart phone app called ‘Do Not Pay’ that has allowed 160,000 people challenge parking fines.
Such an app hardly sounds like something that is part of a revolution in the way humanity deals with the world. But Mitch Young, General Manager, IBM ASEAN, mentioned ‘Do Not Pay’ as an example of how the company’s ‘Rock Star’ cognitive super-computer, IBM Watson, is a remarkable convergence between mind-blowing technology and the stuff that makes a difference to our every-day lives.
According to Young the cognitive revolution is transforming the world in which we live. Six years ago Watson captured headlines by beating contestants in a game show; now it’s delivering competitive advantages and unlocking insights for companies big and small. It already helps stores interpret your preferences by using facial recognition software, or turns a smart phone into a ‘pancreas in your pocket’ by harvesting and understanding medical data from diabetes sufferers.
Cognitive systems understand data, apply reason to that data, increase the value of their insights over time (by learning), and change the interaction between man and machine, often using natural language rather than a computer-based one.
This can be disconcerting. Take Olli, a box-like contraption on wheels with large windows and a mind of its own. Step in, and it’s liable to tell you that it is a cognitively-enabled vehicle, and that you can ask it anything. Then it takes you wherever you want, merrily recommending eating places or warning about turns in the weather. Not only is Olli a totally self-driving vehicle, you are able to have a conversation with it. All the while Olli’s Watson-powered brain is learning.
Olli was put forward as the answer to a question posed by the German capital, Berlin, asking how transport would look in 2030, given its roads, demographics, and the changing needs of its people. Olli’s maker, Local Motors, uses Watson’s cognitive ability to power its mission of reimagining the world of transport.
Justin Fishkin of Local Motors says the car industry still looks remarkably like it did when Henry Ford made his passive-aggressive dictum that customers could have his car in any colour, so long as it was black. Local Motors has abandoned the model of long, clanking assembly lines involving thousands of components, in favour of co-creation and hyper-localism. Its 3D printed beach buggy, the Strati, takes 12 hours of printing and a single hour of assembly.
Talk of self-driving cars usually ends up with concerns about job losses, but that might not be the case with the cognitive revolution. Mitch Young speaks of creating ‘New Collar’ workers, new types of workers with value unlocked by new business-models built on these new foundations. But there will be losers: those who achieve digital intelligence will win, and the battle will be won at the intersection of unstructured data, cognition, and the cloud. The key will be to “unleash the insights from the data”. And, presumably, to make good friends with whichever vehicle you’re in – after all, they will be in some sense in the driving seat.