Innovation in the Cognitive Era

Throughout the industrial age there has been breakthrough innovation that has changed everything.

Way back when … most manufactured products were made by hand. A craftsman, or team of craftsmen, would create products by hand. They would use their skills, and hand tools, to create the individual parts before assembling them into the final product. The process was very labor intensive.   The assembly line, institutionalized by Henry Ford, changed everything. It also catapulted Ford to market leadership with The Model T and re-shaped the automobile industry … as well as the way all products are manufactured.

American railroads were originally planned to serve cities and their surrounding areas. It didn’t initially occur to city planners, or the railroad builders, that these networks might eventually need to connect with one another. This led to a mish mash of track and rail sizes (or gauges in railroad speak) … none of which were compatible. While some standardization was inevitable, by the 1870s, there were still over twenty different gauges in use in America. This stalled growth and hurt the industries ability to expand. Railroad standardization did eventually change everything and traveling by train became the de facto way people traveled long distances … at least until other travel innovations disrupted the railroad industry. Many supplemental innovation opportunities were created (such as luxury Pullman rail cars) as the transportation industry innovated its way forward, eventually adding new ways to travel (airplanes and automobiles).

Before the telephone and wireless radio (yes this was also before fax machines), the only way to send messages was by telegraph. The telegraph was a hard wired connection of send/receive points. I guess the use of smoke signals and homing pigeons had other imitations … like being too messy. Ever clean-up after a bunch of pigeons?

The telegraph was the primary form of long distance communication for the better part of a century … and Morse code was the language of the telegraph. Morse code was a system of dots (shown as asterisk below) and dashes, that when combined, formed words, letters and sentences. As you can imagine, it was highly inefficient. One of the last messages sent from The Titanic was:

*** ** * *

*** **** ** **,

*** ** * *

***- — -*– *- –* *.

Translated to English … it says, “FINE SHIP, FINE VOYAGE.”

I wonder when the ship started sinking how many messages didn’t get sent because the Morse coding and reassembly process was so cumbersome, time-consuming and error prone.

When Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone … you guessed it … it changed everything. Many supplemental innovation opportunities were also created including wireless radio, broadcast television and every facet of communications.

These kinds of “change everything” opportunies don’t happen that often. So recognizing one as an innovation and business opportunity … may be more important then the innovation itself. After all, Ford, Bell and the Railroads only reaped a small fraction of the spoils. Entire massive industries in the transportation and communications were created. The savvy innovators and intrapreneurs understood the follow-on opportunities being created and capitalized on them.

Well .. most did. William Orten was not among them. He was the CEO of Western Union Telegraph Company in 1876. Western Union had a monopoly on the most advanced communications technology available (the telegraph) in 1876. Western Union was offered the patent on a Bell’s invention (the telephone), for $100,000 (or about $2M in 2014 dollars). The CEO (William Orten) considered the whole idea ridiculous and wrote directly to Alexander Graham Bell:

”After careful consideration of your invention, while it is a very interesting novelty, we have come to the conclusion that it has no commercial possibilities … What use could this company make of an electrical toy?”

Two years later, after the telephone began to take off, Orten realized the magnitude of his mistake, and spent years (unsuccessfully) challenging Bell’s patents. Ooops!!!

The computing industry is about to undergo a once on in a generation innovation opportunity. We are entering The Cognitve Era of computing.

The current computing model has reached it’s limits. The next level of value can’t be unlocked by current approaches. Data already flows from every device, replacing guessing and approximations with precise information … yet 80% of this data is unstructured … and therefore, invisible to computers and of limited use to business. There is simply too much information and most of it is noise. We need the ability to know what is relevant and useful.

More importantly, why don’t computers learn, adapt, reason and apply information the way I do?

We got here by first building computers that solved basic problems and/or enabled us to new things … before moving onto solving more advanced problems and/or raising the bar on our own ambition. It all got started in the late 19th century.

1890s – 1950s: The Tabulating Systems Era

  • Massive growth in people and things demanded single purpose systems that could count.
  • For the first time, a program like the US Social Security system was possible.

1950s – Today: The Programmable Systems Era

  • The increasing complexity of business and society demanded multipurpose systems that can apply logic to perform pre-programmed tasks.
  • For the first time, landing on the moon was possible.

Today: The Cognitive Systems Era

  • Continually changing scale and complexity now require real-time judgment from systems that can sense, learn and understand to help humans make decision and take action.
  • With technology augmenting and extending human intelligence, it’s difficult to imagine what is not possible.

Welcome to the The Cognitve Era … where cognitive systems can understand the world through sensing and interaction, reason using hypotheses and arguments and learn from experts and through data:

  • Understand unstructured data, through sensing and interaction.
  • Reason about it by generating hypotheses, considering, arguments, and recommendations.
  • Learn from training by experts, from every interaction, and from continually ingesting data. In fact, they never stop learning.

This changes everything!

And like those other once in a generation innovation opportunities, now is the time to get involved. Start by educating yourself and begin experimenting. Look for cognitive innovation in these five areas:

  1. Deeper Human Engagement: Cognitive businesses create more fully human interactions with people—based on the mode, form and quality each person prefers. They take advantage of what is available today to create a fine-grained picture of individuals—geo-location data, web interactions, transaction history, loyalty program patterns, EMRs, data from wearables—and add to that picture details that have been hard or impossible to detect: tone, sentiment, emotional state, environmental conditions, strength and nature of a person’s relationships. They reason through the sum total of all this structured and unstructured data to find what really matters in engaging a person. By continuously learning, these engagements deliver greater and greater value, and become more natural, anticipatory and emotionally meaningful.
  2. Elevated Expertise: Every industry and profession’s knowledge is expanding at a rate faster than any professional can keep up with—journals, new protocols, new legislation, new practices, and entire new fields.
  3. Cognitive Products and Services: Cognition enables new classes of products and services to sense, reason and learn about their users and the world around them. This allows for continuous improvement and adaptation, and augments their ability to deliver on products and services not previously imagined.
  4. Cognitive Processes and Operations: Cognition also transforms how a company operates and functions. Business processes infused with cognitive capabilities capitalize on the phenomenon of data, from internal and external sources. This gives them heightened awareness of workflows, context and environment—leading to continuous learning, better forecasting and operational effectiveness—along with decision-making at the speed of today’s data.
  5. Intelligent Exploration and Discovery: Ultimately, the most powerful tool that cognitive businesses will possess is far better “headlights” into an increasingly volatile and complex future. Such headlights are becoming more important, as leaders in all industries are compelled to place big bets—on drug development, on complex financial modeling, on materials science innovation, and on launching a startup. By applying cognitive technologies to vast amounts of data, leaders can uncover patterns, opportunities and actionable hypotheses that would be virtually impossible to discover using traditional research or programmable systems alone.

Innovators, entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs should all be licking their chops at the numerous ways to capitalize on this.

This does change everything! … hopefully you agree.  More from IBM on The Cognitive Era … check out the short video.

As always, leave me your thoughts and ideas here.