Our Opinion: Cognitive computing – ‘What now?’

Science fiction often predicts scientific advances.

Leonardo Da Vinci designed flying machines and Jules Verne wrote about rocket ships long before they became part of everyday reality.

Another sci-fi mainstay is the thinking machine — conjured by master storyteller Isaac Asimov in his robot tales and represented by the computer, HAL 9000, in “2001: A Space Odyssey,” the Arthur C. Clarke novel that became a major motion picture.

Welcome to the brave, new reality of “cognitive computing,” a technological trend to develop a computer that behaves like a human brain.

Prototype computer chips have been developed by IBM in a six-year project involving 100 researchers and about $41 million in funding from the government’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA.

Computer mimicry based on previous input already is part our daily lives. It is experienced when a search engine attempts to identify a search based on a few keystrokes or when a smartphone recognizes characters of text and predicts words.

Cognitive computing, however, combines technology and psychology in “parallel processing” to analyze new, unexpected information.

Dharmendra Modha, project leader for IBM Research, likens parts of the new chips to digital neurons and synapses.

IBM’s efforts to simulate the human brain are not new. The company simulated 40 percent of a mouse’s brain in 2006, a rat’s entire brain in 2007 and 1 percent of a human cerebral cortex in 2009.

Modha, however, says the new chip marks a major breakthrough. “It really changes the perspective from ‘What if?’ to ‘What now?’”

Clarke’s classic novel, “2001: A Space Odyssey,” ends with a powerful Star Child focusing on the Earth, uncertain of what do next. But, the reader is told, he would think of something.

If scientists succeed in creating a cognitive computer that simulates the human brain, what promising or terrifying possibilities are raised by Modha’s question: “What now?”

Or, like Clarke’s Star Child contemplating its new-found powers, will we simply hope we will think of something?

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