Adopting Cognitive Computing: A Status Report

Cognitive computing is emerging as a significant part of the next generation of computing. Because it is early days in this new generation of computing, there is still no widespread understanding of what it is and how it differs from some of its relatives: AI, internet of things, machine learning, conversational systems, bots, or NLP. We see that in both the US and in Europe that companies are very interested, but are mostly still at the experimentation and proof of concept stage. We will be tracking some of these projects as they develop their cognitive applications and roll them out more broadly. There is no question, though, that interest is high, and that the ability to augment and assist users, as well as to move from static to dynamic systems has great appeal.

I recently had the opportunity to attend a focus group, sponsored by SAS Institute, on cognitive computing adoption outside the US. Attendees came from Denmark, Japan, Finland, Serbia, Netherlands, Sweden, Switzerland, India and Ireland. They represented financial services, telecom, consumer product manufacturers, government agencies, and airline companies. Here are some gleanings from their wide-ranging discussion.

How are you using or how do you expect to use cognitive computing?

  • Automatically revise and evolve rules to expedite adaptation
  • Uncover and improve best business practices and processes
  • Detect patterns of behavior. Detect abnormalities. Identify risks

Augment human agents who can’t handle the current workload by automating the more predictable aspects of the job.

Why move to cognitive computing?

  • Handle large amounts of data with many more variables. Especially textual data.
  • Reduce need for adding manpower. People just don’t scale.
  • Stay ahead of competitors
  • Uncover surprises. (This was a side benefit to demonstration project that was originally designed to augment the human workforce)
  • Curiosity to see what benefits might derive from cognitive computing that we can’t get now
  • Get rid of silos
  • Automate predictable or repeatable work
  • Augment human work by developing digital assistants

Examples of uses:

  • Speech-to-speech product sales. Their innovation lab is experimenting with this. App will be personalized. Will use machine learning to replace hundreds of business rules and 20 predictive models. Machine learning will allow the models to evolve and will help to revise rules faster.
  • Will discover and extract patterns of best business practices to establish KPI’s worldwide from hundreds of business managers. Need to understand what practices work and why.
  • Expedite transactional processing. Moving from rules based process to teaching a system how to assess to minimize delays.
  • They are tracking and analyzing invoices using rules and econometric models. Their goal is to teach a system to automate model development and modification for tracking and analyzing invoices. Extending beyond rules and econometric models they want to add sentiment from incoming, non-English communications.
  • Recognize patterns of behavior to find anomalies and predict risk to more thoroughly assess people and goods.
  • Automate responses to customers, but on a more individual level. Part of a project to analyze customer opinions—a big data project.

In all cases, augmenting existing applications and seeking net new benefit from the use of cognitive computing systems was consistent among all participants. Completely new product development or drastic changes to business processes from cognitive computing application wasn’t seen to provide the palatable business benefit needed to embrace adoption. In all cases, however, changes and improvements to existing business practices were expected.

Challenges

This group of early adopters was proceeding with caution. They had the bruises from past new technology experiments and don’t believe the hype around AI today. In each case, it was apparent that they had support from high-level management, and that they were starting with a proof of concept, or several. We have heard this from other buyers. Several are working with more than one vendor, trying to compare dissimilar products with little in the way of best practices to guide them.

Some of the concerns that emerged were first that these systems are often a black box; that it was not clear why they were getting the recommendations that were delivered. Because business systems are traditionally databased, this ambiguity appears to be unacceptable to them for some uses today. The buyers felt that they needed the evidence behind the results. Probabilistic systems, including search engines, have long struggled with this problem. Although we know that information systems of all sorts deliver only what you ask for and not what you should have asked for, nevertheless, they are seen as precise and complete. Managing expectations is a challenge for vendors and for IT managers.

Other group members were concerned about the need for a lot of computing power. Several mentioned the challenge of developing non-English applications because most of the research has been in English-based systems. Perhaps most intriguing in terms of issues, though, were the predicted “What-if” questions: will we lose the institutional memory that originally trained the system? If so and if the system breaks down, will we be able to fix it? Centralized systems are always a problem, they said. They must be up and running 24/7. They must be reliable. That’s a challenge for any system.

Finally, they pointed to interaction design as a great unknown, especially for non-IT, non-analyst business users who need access to data stores but won’t understand the system design behind the interface. Right now there are experiments, but no accepted best practices.

It is apparent that SAS is seizing this trend toward cognitive computing. The announcement of SAS Viya ™ at this conference, along with a variety of tools for both their loyal developer and analyst base and a wider business user audience positions them nicely as both a partner with other cognitive and IOT platforms and as a potential competitor.

We will continue to track cognitive use cases and report on them. The field is evolving rapidly. Focus groups like this, and like the Cognitive Computing Consortium’s soon-to-arrive discussion forum will enable experimenters to teach each other, perhaps mitigating mistakes that might otherwise be widespread.

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