Analyze this, Watson

When we think of technology, few conjure images of machines that can interact with us, much less think on their own terms. But at the recent IBM Smarter Defence Summit in Ottawa, Zachary J. Lemnios, vice president of research strategy, argued that the intelligent machine – otherwise known as cognitive computing – is the future of business.

IBM’s Watson may have come to fame by defeating Jeopardy champions Brad Rutter and Ken Jennings in 2011, but the company is working with the system to analyze massive volumes of data and turn it into information, a capability that Lemnios says will be sorely needed as data sets multiply in size in the coming years.

According to Lemnios, this challenge will be IBM’s key focus in the next era of cognitive computing. Data is growing at a tremendous speed, and it is becoming increasingly complex – yet many industries need this data to be consumable, and to have it delivered at a rapid pace. This is especially true in the defence sector, where intelligence must be analyzed as quickly as possible, and split-second decisions must be made in the field.

As a result, organizations of all shapes and sizes, including the defence industry, will be turning to cognitive computing to translate data into information – and to use that information in a more efficient way. Watson will revolutionize the way organizations, both private and public, use analytics, he said.

“This issue of operating in the cyber domain, in integrated operations, is driving the size of the data and the ability to make decisions real-time. We’ve got to get our heads around it. We’ve got to do that with much greater assurance, much greater resilience, and an understanding of what the next step looks like. This explosion of information is driving us to new computational environments. We’re going to see this whole field of cognitive systems take off. It’s a great domain for the ISR community to take hold of and to drive into their data sets.”

Watson currently has access to 200 million pages of data, both structured and unstructured, and is capable of responding within three seconds to questions posed to it. It’s an ideal application for fields that must filter and analyze large volumes of information.

Like anything, there is room for improvement. As Lemnios pointed out in his keynote address, Watson is incapable of understanding context and has difficulty operating in natural environments. But now that the technology has entered the mainstream, computer scientists can build on the foundation that IBM has laid for them in the cognitive computing sphere, all while IBM works to refine the science behind Watson and develop a computer with reasoning, language, and perception capabilities.

Lemnios believes that IBM’s great challenge for the coming years will be figuring out how to extract information from unstructured data and build it into timelines for the Department of National Defence and other clients. And he is certain that Watson will be the defence industry’s solution to this particular problem.

“This is a disruptive technology. You’ll see changes in the field in the next few years,” he said. “It will obsolete many of the technologies that are in place right now, in terms of tracking and finding and time-critical assessments. And moving to this field is going to require moving side by side with [the defence industry] in order to build our technology base on problems that [the defence industry faces].”

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