The goal of cognitive computing is to become our trusted adviser."
Dr Michelle Dickinson

Many people's first experience of basic artificial intelligence is via a disembodied voice on their smartphone, but that's just a taste of cognitive computing's full potential as a smart assistant.

The technology is already making its presence felt in many industries and is shaping up to be a powerful business tool, says Dr Michelle Dickinson, nanotechnology specialist and senior lecturer at the University of Auckland.

"For all our strengths, human brains can only store a certain amount of information and we can only read and retain information at a certain speed," Dickinson says. "I think the goal of cognitive computing is to become our trusted adviser, putting a wealth of data at our disposal and helping us make better decisions in everything we do."

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In the business world, Dickinson says cognitive computing is going to allow people and organisations to "be the best they can be". "It's going to increase operational efficiencies – minimising costs and maximising output – by tapping into the vast amounts of knowledge and experience at its disposal to help us make smart business decisions."

Nothing left untouched

Far more than just glorified number-crunching, cognitive computing is capable of understanding information, drawing its own conclusions and even teaching itself new skills along the way. This ability to reason and learn is seeing the technology reach into every corner of our lives.

Cognitive computing will help save lives as part of a partnership between IBM Research and MoleMap New Zealand, analysing images of skin lesions to help identify patterns in the early stages of melanoma.

New Zealand has the highest rate of skin cancer in the world, especially for melanoma, which is considered among the most life-threatening, and early diagnosis is critical for survival rates. Using cognitive computing, clinicians will be able to detect melanoma earlier and more accurately to ensure people get the treatment they need.

The first step was to teach a machine how to spot melanoma, studying three types of skin cancer and 12 benign disease groups by examining 40,000 images provided by MoleMap New Zealand and analysing the doctor's medical diagnosis. Like a human, the machine's accuracy with detecting melanoma improves with practice.

Molemap image

“Cognitive computing has the ability to process vast amounts of complex data including images and text very quickly, something that isn’t possible by usual manual methods," says Dr Joanna Batstone, vice president and lab director for IBM Research Australia and New Zealand.

"Another major benefit of the self-learning technology is that it improves as more and more data is fed into it. This initiative could inform future research and, potentially, the development of offerings that could have enormous implications for both the New Zealand public and the health system.”

Simplifying complexity

Just like a person, cognitive computing can become an expert in any field with training and experience. Christchurch-based engineering consultancy ENGEO called on IBM's Watson to underpin its GoFetchCode app, which uses cognitive computing to answer complex engineering regulatory queries.

Thanks to natural language processing, engineers can ask the app complicated questions using plain English. It calls on its knowledge of millions of pages of federal, state and local codes from around the world to deliver a concise answer and link to other relevant sections of the regulatory codes – helping engineers make critical decisions.

In emergency situations, the app can provide teams with rapid engineering expertise when they are assessing the condition of important infrastructure.

Understanding people

Cognitive computing doesn't just put a world of knowledge and insight at your fingertips. It's also helping us better understand how real people behave.

IBM Business

New Zealand technology group TouchPoint is teaching artificial intelligence how to get angry – analysing call centre recordings in order for the machine to act like a disgruntled customer. The goal is to teach businesses like banks, insurance companies and utility providers how to offer better customer service – not only diffusing tense situations but also identifying business behaviours that most upset customers.

TouchPoint isn't proposing to replace call centre operators with machines – customers still like the human touch. However, Dickinson warns that technology such as this will have a fundamental impact on society. "People need to be aware that some jobs are going to become extinct while other new jobs will be created,” she says. “I teach my university students to be resilient to change because the world is always changing.

"This isn't the first time in the world we've seen a shift like this – we used to ride horses to work and then cars came along, so now we have fewer blacksmiths and more motor mechanics. In the future there will be different types of jobs, which don't exist right now, and the key is to be adaptive to change and ready to reskill or upskill when the time is right."


Welcome to the Cognitive Era

A new era of business. A new era of technology. A new era of thinking.

The Cognitive Era brings with it a fundamental change in how systems are built and interact with humans. Cognitive solutions are already unclogging city traffic, improving emergency services, making food supplies safer and improving customer engagement. But this is just the beginning. It's time to outthink what is achievable.

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