Computers won't replace doctors, traffic analysts or meteorologists anytime soon, but their real-time analytical capabilities can provide essential information, and that will help humans employed in these (and many other) fields make smarter decisions.
That's the big data gospel from IBM, which is testing its powerful cognitive computer systems – computers modeled on the human brain -- around the world. Like many industry players, the tech giant sees a confluence of four factors -- social, mobile, analytics and cloud, or "SMAC" -- that will combine with cognitive systems to have a major impact on 21st-century business, government and society in general.
In a phone interview with InformationWeek, IBM research fellow Kerrie Holley provided a high-level overview of Big Blue's take on SMAC, machine learning and the sensor-driven Internet of Things, all of which are expected to play starring roles in the new era IBM calls cognitive computing.
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The current era of programmable computing had a good run, but it's coming to an end, said Holley. "Before that was the tabulating era, where we used tabulating machines -- pre-transistors, pre-computers," he said. "We see each of these eras lasting about 40 to 50 years."
IBM officials in recent months have been chatting up their vision of a big data-driven future. In March, for instance, CEO Ginni Rometty told business leaders at the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations that big data and predictive analytics would play a major role in how organizations make key decisions.
And ready or not, enterprise user, the cognitive era is coming soon.
"This new era of computing will require more innovation and invention," Holley said. The Internet of Things, for instance, will grow increasingly crucial to organizations. "We're seeing more devices connected to the Internet," he said. "There's a lot of machine-to-machine interaction that's made possible because we're beginning to exploit the Web as a programmable, open platform."
IBM, not surprisingly, has a major stake in this vision of the future. Its cognitive technologies, most notably the Watson computer system that answers questions posed in natural language, are built for big data. In healthcare, for instance, Watson's evidence-based learning, hypothesis generation and natural-language skills could help medical professionals make key decisions in patient diagnosis and treatment.
Watson already has begun performing this role. In March, IBM and Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC) in New York City announced plans to develop a cognitive system that combines Watson's computational power and natural language capabilities with MSKCC's extensive medical data from its lengthy history of treating cancer patients. The objective is to give oncologists a quick way to access diagnostic and treatment options based on updated research. Ideally, Watson will help doctors choose the best care for an individual patient.
"This technology will in no way replace doctors. It'll be an aid to doctors, and it will (enable) them to cut down on error rates," said Holley.
Weather forecasting can benefit from big data analytics too, Holley said. For instance, IBM's Deep Thunder, a research project that creates precise, local weather forecasts, can predict severe storms in a specific area up to three days before the event. This early-warning system gives local authorities and residents enough time to make preparations.
"Deep Thunder is not weather reporting that you'd see on TV. It focuses more on the operational problems that weather presents to cities or businesses," said Holley. Rio de Janeiro is implementing Deep Thunder to prepare for weather events and limit their impact. Brazil's second largest city hopes to avoid catastrophes like a 2010 coastal storm that left more than 200 people dead and 15,000 homeless.
Deep Thunder "is useful to be able to predict that within a certain window of time -- let's say a three-hour window -- that wind velocity will cause a flood in a particular area," Holley said.
The system also could help Rio city officials incorporate weather predictions into their plans for the 2014 World Cup, which Brazil will host. E2 is the only event of its kind, bringing together business and technology leaders across IT, marketing and other lines of business looking for new ways to evolve their enterprise applications strategy and transform their organizations to achieve business value. Join us June 17-19 for three days of 40+ conference sessions and workshops across eight tracks, and discover the latest insights in enterprise social software, big data and analytics, mobility, cloud, SaaS and APIs, UI/UX and more. Register for E2 Conference Boston today and save $200 off Full Event Passes, $100 off Conference, or get a FREE Keynote + Expo Pass!