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Creating a community of care with cognitive computing

Speed read
  • SC16 keynote speaker Katharine Frase extols the benefits of cognitive computing
  • Cognitive computing excels at the intractable, massive, fragmented type of problem
  • New era in HPC could revolutionize the way students learn

For decades now, computers have been helping humans answer questions. But what if they could also help us choose which questions to ask?

That’s the tempting option offered by Katharine Frase. Frase, vice-president and chief technical officer for IBM, kicked off the SC16 conference with a broad overview of the evolution of computing, before focusing on the new era we’ve just entered — the era of cognitive computing.

Cognitive computing is changing the ability to draw insight from massive datasets, says SC16 keynote speaker Katharine Frase. Courtesy SC16.

Cognitive computing, also known as artificial intelligence and perhaps best known for IBM's Watson (a project Frase helped pioneer), is a system that understands natural language. Since it learns rather than being programmed, cognitive computing also gets smarter every day.

These new systems can look beyond our unconscious human biases. They can help us grasp and respond to scientific challenges that involve huge, fragmented data sets and affect every human on the planet. Climate science, astrophysics, and genomics all leap to mind.

But there’s another challenge that seems equally intractable, involves fragmented, massive datasets, and affects all of us. It’s not being met by a data-driven approach, and it carries a huge economic impact. The next challenge Frase suggests that we use cognitive systems for is the problem of education.

Studies in the US show that children with a vocabulary deficit at the age of three are at high-risk of falling behind their peers for the rest of their lives. The US also boasts poor graduation rates, crushing college debt, and an inability to effectively retrain adults whose vocational landscape changes.

The challenge is exacerbated because we lack the data to improve the educational responses, primarily because there are no clinical trials in education. 

Internationally, demand of the rising middle class for quality education is far outstripping supply: It’s simply not possible to build schools or train teachers fast enough. 

Ever since the first episode of Sesame Street aired in November 1969, the Children’s Television Workshop has used technology to deliver quality education to every child regardless of geographic location or socio-economic class.

But to the children of the 21st century, who expect a screen to react when touched, television has a much weaker appeal. That’s why customization is the key to future educational experience, Frase suggests.

Hitting the high notes. Katharine Frase, VP and CTO for IBM's Public Sector, called for the power of cognitive computing to be focused on improving the educational system. Courtesy SC16.

Cognitive computing could help teachers better know and understand their students, connect with one another, monitor student progress, make classroom decisions, and create a feeling of coordinated care around every single child.

“What if,” asks Frase, “a parent could help design the way their child experiences Elmo? The fact is, the more engaged a student is, the better they learn because they become learners rather than repeaters. They become explorers and discoverers. It’s the Wikipedia effect.”

That’s why we come to SC16: To see the latest in HPC technology, to hear new and better ways HPC can be applied – in short, to hear once again why HPC matters.

HPC and its newest iteration, cognitive computing, may hold the keys to unlocking the puzzle of education, turning this intractable problem into an interactive, customized solution that benefits us all.

Follow the HPC crowd to Frankfurt next June.

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