Cognitive Computing is Closing In

English: IBM's Watson computer, Yorktown Heigh...

IBM’s Watson computer (photo licenced through Wikimedia Commons)

A few years ago I did some research on intelligent tutor systems, specialised software programs that could help a learner to grasp the basic concepts of a discipline, learn a specific procedure, or just organise documents more intuitively or accessibly.  Back then, the Holy Grail of artificial intelligence (AI) was to somehow achieve machine consciousness, that is, to build a machine that demonstrated awareness of its own existence and its surroundings including coherent interaction with humans, and the ability to adapt to changing circumstances in an intelligent way. Above all, an AI machine demonstrating “consciousness” would have the ability to learn over time.

Ray Kurzweil used the term “singularity” to mark the point in some future development when a machine successfully demonstrates all of the above characteristics, perhaps ushering in a whole new era of human/machine existence. That date still seems a long way off and the predictions of pundits in the pioneering days of AI about the speed of development of AI systems (think 2001: A Space Odyssey’s HAL 9000 – the film was released back in 1968) seem almost laughable now.

Other researchers in the field have concentrated on building systems that demonstrate some aspects of intelligent behaviour, such as skill in playing chess.  IBM has been at the forefront in this field for many years and achieved success at Computer Chess World Championship level with Deep Thought (1988-89) and Grandmaster level with Deep Blue’s defeat of Garry Kasparov in 1997.  Both machines relied on brute-force computing to look up to 10 moves ahead in a chess match.  That is, they used rules-based reasoning and massive computing power to achieve success while operating within a closed logic space.

Dealing with the subtleties of natural language, however, has proven to be a much more daunting task.  IBM’s “Watson” is a computer system that Wikipedia describes as: “specifically developed to answer questions on the quiz show Jeopardy!”  The show’s format requires contestants to discover the correct question to a supplied answer, a task that relies heavily on deductive reasoning and access to a large number of known facts about popular culture and discipline-specific knowledge.  Watson is an amalgam of a range of software programs including C++, Java, Prolog and IBM’s proprietary DeepQA.  The diagram below demonstrates some of the complexity involved in DeepQA’s analysis of language:

High-level architecture of DeepQA used in Watson

High-level architecture of DeepQA used in Watson

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