What Does Cognitive Computing Mean for Virtual Agents?

Watson2Forbes recently published an article on IBM Watson and the intent to use Watson’s cognitive computing abilities to provide customer help desk services. In a previous post, I wrote about the technology behind DeepQA, which is the question answering framework used to power IBM Watson. The DeepQA technology seems like it could be a game changer for the virtual agent landscape.

How does cognitive computing push the envelope? DeepQA / IBM Watson is not constrained by the limited amounts of information that most current virtual agents have access to. This is an evolutionary process. Chatbots have been far outstripped by intelligent virtual agent technologies over the past decade. Chatbots are simple pattern matching devices that can only respond to a question that has already been programmed into their database. Virtual agents don’t have to be primed with all the questions in advance. They have the benefit of speech and/or language recognition, natural language processing, and search. They can understand a person’s intent and search a limited database or set of website content to find an answer, primarily based on keyword matching.

Cognitive computers like DeepQA go even further. Such question answering systems can be primed with almost unimaginable amounts of information. IBM Watson can be given access to every bit of internal product and company documentation, as well as online review sites, analysts articles, and on and on.  This is far more information than a traditional virtual agent, or even a human, could consume and process. Relying on its massively parallel probabilistic evidence-based architecture, IBM Watson can very quickly find possible answers to almost any question, determine which answers are most likely to be correct, and offer a response.

What do these newly emerging question answering technologies mean for the future of customer service virtual agents, personal digital assistants, and web self service as a whole? It remains to be seen how products such as an Ask Watson will perform in the real world. It’s also not clear if Ask Watson will be cost competitive when compared with more traditional solutions.

How the virtual agent landscape develops will depend not only on emerging technologies, but on what consumers expect from the systems they interact with. We’ll be keeping an eye on developments.

IBM’s Watson Goes to Medical School

WatsonIBM’s Watson is not only smart enough to win at Jeopardy, it’s got what it takes to be a valuable expert resource for physicians responsible for making complex healthcare decisions. According to a recent article in Robotics Trends entitled The Robot Will See You Now, the IBM Watson team has demonstrated how Watson can utilize the same skills it employed for its Jeopardy win, to now aid doctors in diagnosing illnesses and recommending treatments. These breakthroughs in the area of cognitive computing are providing humans with a new partner for helping with complex knowledge processing tasks.

Watson has enormous processing power. According to sources, Watson is capable of processing the equivalent of a million books per seconds. Combine Watson’s processing horsepower with its language processing and question analyzing and answering skills, and it can search through data and make associations far more quickly than a human can. According to the Robotics Trends article, Memorial Sloan-Kettering, a top institution in the area of cancer research and treatment, is working with IBM to teach Watson the latest information from medical research, symptom analysis, and treatment options. Medical documentation from hundreds of sources is growing exponentially. All of the data is valuable, but a human physician has no way of keeping up with the deluge of information.

That’s where Watson comes in. With its tireless ability to ingest unstructured data and understand relationships and trends within the information,  Watson can sort through whole libraries in seconds and recommend possible matches between symptoms, diagnoses, and treatments. Watson also has the ability to learn, which means that its understanding of medical literature and real life medical cases is constantly expanding. And though none of the articles discuss this point, Watson is not subject to unconscious human bias and anchoring, which can cause physicians to make a diagnosis based on only one or two symptoms, while ignoring other possibly important inputs.

An InformationWeek article provides a more in-depth look at how Memorial Sloan-Kettering is working with Watson.

In an upcoming post, I’ll write  about the technology behind Watson that’s an offshoot of IBM’s DeepQA and the Open Advancement of Question Answering (OAQA) Initiative.