Smart Machines: A book review by Bob Morris

Smart MachinesSmart Machines: IBM’s Watson and the Era of Cognitive Computing
John E. Kelly III and Steve Hamm
Columbia Business School Publishing (2013)

How and why humans and cognitive computing can — and should — collaborate on improving quality of life on Earth

I agree with John E. Kelly III and Steve Hamm: “The new era of computing is not just an opportunity for society; it’s also a necessity. Only with the help of smart machines will we be able to deal adequately with the exploding complexity of today’s world and successfully address interlocking problems like disease and poverty and stress on natural systems.” They go on to add, and I wholly agree: The goal isn’t to replicate human brains, though. Recent initiatives in research and development in cognitive computing “aren’t about replacing human thinking with machine thinking. Rather, in the era of cognitive systems, humans and machines will collaborate to produce better results, each bringing their own superior skills to the partnership.”

This is what Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee have in mind when sharing these observations in their recently published book, The Second Machine Age: “Digital technologies had been laughably bad at a lot of things for a long time — then they suddenly got very good. How did this happen? And what were the implications of this progress, which as astonishing and yet came to be considered a matter of course? We decided to team up and see if we could answer these questions…So this is a book about the second machine age unfolding right now — an inflection point in the history of our economies and societies because of digitization. It’s an inflection point in the right direction — bounty instead of scarcity, freedom instead of constraint — but one that will bring with it some difficult challenges and choices.”

These are among the dozens of business subjects and issues of special interest and value to me, also listed to indicate the scope of Kelly and Hamm’s coverage.

o The Coming Era of Cognitive Computing (Pages 3-11)
o How Cognitive Systems Will Help Us to Be Smarter (11-16)
o A New Culture of Innovation (19-22)
o Journey of Discovery: The Path of Watson, and The Next Steps for Watson (27-40)
o How to Solve the Big Data Problem (46-57)
o Journey of Discovery: The Ultimate Big Data Challenge (62-67)
o Sensing the Future (70-72)
o Journey of Discovery: A Chip Modeled on the Brain (77-84)
o Journey to Discovery: Rethinking How Computers Are Designed (96-100)
o Journey of Discovery: The New Physics of Computing (111-116)
o Discovering the Invisible Potential of Cities (125-130)

Kelly and Hamm concur that serious challenges have begun to emerge at the dawn of cognitive systems. “We know that big shifts are coming but it’s impossible to fully imagine, now, the impact they will have on computing, business, and society.

“But this we do know: by working in concert, humans and cognitive systems have the potential to dramatically improve and accelerate outcomes that matter to us and to make life on earth more sustainable. This alliances of human and machine offers the promise of progress on a massive scale.”

What is the single greatest barrier to fulfilling that promise? In my opinion, it is cultural incompatibility in lethal combination with what James O’Toole so aptly characterizes as “the ideology of comfort and the tyranny of custom.” Unfortunately, Pogo’s memorable insight remains true: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

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