'Cognitive technology is there to extend and amplify human expertise, not replace it': IBM Watson CTO Rob High on the potential of artificial inteligence

Rob High, IBM Watson

35 years Rob High has been at IBM, the past four spearheading the company’s cognitive offering despite starting out as a Watson sceptic (he turned down the job twice, unconvinced of its breadth of impact after seeing it on Jeopardy). Now an evangelist for the cognitive cause, no one is better placed to tell us what lies in store for AI as part of The Drum's AI issue, guest edited using IBM Watson technology.

What excites you most about AI?

Firstly, AI is an incredibly vibrant field. We’re discovering ways of evolving the technology and applying it to solve profound social and business problems – problems where previous generations of computing systems were not able to provide much benefit. Secondly, AI isn’t just about automating our job for us. It has a tremendous ability to amplify our own cognitive strengths – it contributes to my ability to make better decisions, to see the world through a lens I would have otherwise been blind to. There are tremendous opportunities and we are only at the threshold of what is possible.

Watson is being developed as a tool that can help build and grow businesses – what do you see as the potential for AI in this field?

Watson is transforming the way businesses approach their operations and fuelling their growth with tools that help them understand, reason, learn and interact in a way that has clear and obvious benefits to the human condition.

These systems allow businesses to stretch beyond their limitations, create knowledge from data, expand everyone’s expertise, continuously learn and adapt to outthink the needs of the market. The shift is exciting. Computers aren’t just comprehending random data, but applying reasoning techniques that, with the right training, enable them to understand the real intention of that data’s author.

By understanding the real intention, the cognitive system can find answers to questions that are intuitively obvious, immediately useful, and can be validated. This allows us to help our customers sift through enormous amounts of data to get to the information needed to make better decisions. It allows us to capture the very best of human expertise and democratise that to other people who perhaps don’t have the same depth of experience.

Which projects is Watson currently working that most excite you?

I am excited about the depth and breadth of all of our cognitive projects, but in particular our work within the marketing space is significant for our partners

Rob High is an IBM Fellow, vice-president and chief technology officer of IBM Watson, with overall responsibility for driving Watson’s technical strategy and thought leadership. Prior to joining the Watson team he was chief architect for the IBM Service Oriented Architecture foundation and a member of the IBM Academy of Technology. Previous to that he served as chief architect for the WebSphere foundation.

looking to extend the value of their unstructured data, and leverage that information to pinpoint key market opportunities. For example, our partnership with Havas Group helps its marketers create campaigns and content for clients based on customer data and products. Other partners within broadcasting and media are using Watson to examine social posts, online feedback and images to reach customers in more meaningful ways. It’s about providing context to the data marketers have.

There’s been a lot of negativity towards AI, but how does IBM plan to highlight the positives?

By creating an open platform of cognitive APIs, we can supply the building blocks for developers to build the next ‘great idea’. By sharing our APIs and partnering with developers, we create transparency and a community of openness that ensures we are innovating our technology for the good of the whole.

Cognitive technology is there to extend and amplify human expertise, not replace it. These systems require in-depth training and without humans programming the learning patterns, and without knowledge supplied by human beings, it’s still a machine waiting for human input.

A lot of people don’t realise they are actually using basic forms of cognitive solutions in their everyday life, from customer service interactions with a retailer to travel sites that help you choose a vacation. I believe the more we develop cognitive applications, the more the general public will realise its benefits.

Could it ever replace marketers?

No, never. Watson exists to extend human expertise. In fact, it can actually make us more creative. The possibilities are ripe in the marketing space. Cognitive systems can be used to monitor social media sentiment of consumers, track brand mentions and news coverage across the globe, and even enable better ad placement based on consumers’ preferences.

Watson eliminates the extra time and resources needed to read, analyse and draw conclusions from all the data a marketer can access. It can guide people to make informed, context-specific decisions with more accuracy and efficiency than a person ever could.

What are the limitations for AI and how do you overcome these?

Cognitive systems have already proven to have a remarkable ability to read and analyse data in a way that conclusions become immediately obvious. Nonetheless, doing so employs relatively narrow forms of cognitive reasoning as compared to the general reasoning abilities of humans, and has been concentrated on inductive reasoning. Further generalising cognitive computing remains a research challenge.

Additionally, figuring out how to apply these systems to the toughest business challenges and harness the power of dark data to stay in step with the market’s needs will be a challenge. We’ve spent decades developing and testing cognitive systems and as a leader it is exciting to see how rapidly our partners are applying our services within their business operations.

You are working with more and more partners who are integrating Watson into their platform offerings. How do you choose which partners to work with?

Our partners use Watson to innovate and advance their businesses on a daily basis. Across healthcare, education, marketing and government, we see organisations that are eager to use cognitive systems to improve operations and reduce the use of unnecessary time and resources. It is important that our users share in our vision for cognitive and want to invest in the future. Our community engages with us in various ways and our job is to make the technology available to them, when and how they need it. We are partnering with the pioneers and champions of change in more than 17 industries across 35 countries. Their ability to impact the future is key and we are grateful to partner alongside them.

This article was first published in The Drum's AI issue, guest edited using IBM Watson technology.

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