‘Watson’ supercomputer showcased at Design Summit

Computers were originally conceived to output straightforward calculations, following a clearly defined set of tabulated rules designed by very clever programmers.

But when they start to think, and indeed even mimic the human brain, to the extent that they might even be capable of outperforming people, perhaps there should be pause for thought for all of us.

Does it represent the end of days? Are we mere mortals to feel ‘threatened’ by insurgent ‘cognitive technology’ that might well lead to our own subjugation and, perchance, demise at the hands of machines?

All very sci-fi, perhaps, but the reality is that the technology behind independently thinking and acting computers is very much upon us.

At the Edinburgh International Conference Centre on Friday, those attending the Design Summit 2015 were given a fascinating glimpse into the workings of one of the original computing pioneers, IBM, and its Watson supercomputer.

Although well known for its ‘business machines’  hardware, IBM itself has undergone something of a re-positioning in recent years and its focus on design has led to the creation of a raft of new applications.

Watson is one such technology. Brought to attention on the US gameshow Jeopardy!, the supercomputer famously out-thought two of the best contestants in the show’s history, ushering in a new era of computing.

As Alice Keating-Withers, Watson Sales Consultant at IBM, explains: “We’re really seeing Watson at the forefront of a new era of computing, the cognitive era. We’ve passed through a number of eras already, starting off with the tabulated system, through programmable systems which we all use to a high degree today.

“These systems are fantastic but they also have their own limitations. They’re based around rules and decision trees whereas we’re moving towards a cognitive era where systems can actually reason for themselves. Lots of people talk of Watson as being an artificially intelligent computer; we actually also like to refer to it more as augmented intelligence – a technology that can make us as human beings more intelligent and increase our own expertise.”

IBM's Alice Keating-Withers / Credit: Lindsay Perth, Lippi Photography

IBM’s Alice Keating-Withers / Credit: Lindsay Perth, Lippi Photography

So how does Watson work? Perhaps most significantly, Keating-Withers explains, Watson can search through vast tranches of ‘unstructured data’ and find new insights, where traditional computers would have struggled.

In the Jeopardy! example, it worked very much like a human brain, in the sense that it gathered up lots of cryptic information and then analysed it in an attempt to find the correct answer. Critically, the correct answer was arrived at only through Watson having the ability to process ‘natural language’ – understanding and intuiting the clues it was given by the show’s host, without being connected to the Internet.

“It was a great feat that Watson could come back with these really accurate answers, but it wasn’t just about accuracy, Watson was able to have confidence in what it was bringing back,” says Keating-Withers.

“And it was able to do this because it was finding evidence, it was gathering evidence from its data store of information to back up every single possible answer it could find.”

So, having proven its abilities, Watson has since been put to use commercially by IBM. Through its ecosystem network, IBM offers its clients the abilities to tap into the potential of the open platform development system to apply it to solve real-life business problems.

The company has worked with oncologists in the US, who complained that they were at times overwhelmed with patient information, impacting on the quality of time they had to manage cancer treatment regimes.

It has also developed its very own cookbook, available on Amazon, which is designed to ‘inspire’ – rather than replace – budding chefs as they search for interesting new recipes and ingredients.

Through its support of app developer Red Ant, Watson has also empowered a new generation of retail assistants, who will never be embarrassed again by not knowing key product information when trying to answer a sales query from a customer.

“It’s a really versatile technology and can really drive innovation and creativity into a number of industries,” adds Keating-Withers. As examples she picks out health, cooking, retail, financial services, travel and music.

It can find new insight from unstructured data in journals, articles, research papers, and also on blogs and forums, Twitter and Facebook feeds, and make it useful. And it can also help people in their work and personal lives.

Keating-Withers adds: “If you can imagine in your own professional lives if you had the ability to take in all the information that was available to you, to be able to tap into it when and where you needed to, to help you make better decisions in your work life, and even your personal lives. And this is what we’re trying to achieve with Watson.”

IBM signalled earlier this year that it intends to add 1,000 designers to its global workforce by 2018 with skills in visual design, user experience/interactive design, user research and front end development.

But the company warned earlier this year of a skills shortage because not enough graduates are coming through UK design schools. It currently has 40 in the UK, based out of a new design studio in London.