Computers and the military rarely interface well in science fiction.

In the movie War Games, the Pentagon’s main computer seemingly brings the world to the brink of war. In the Terminator movie series, computers become self aware and wage war against humans. They do the same in The Matrix.

But at an IBM summit in Ottawa on Wednesday the biggest name in big computers tried to convince our armed forces that computers are our allies.

It was IBM’s fifth annual Smarter Defence Summit, where speakers talked about cyber defence, emerging global threats and the company’s defence-related portfolio.

For those who think the next generation of computers will merely process data faster than before, Zachary Lemnios, IBM’s vice-president of strategy research and keynote speaker, said that actually computers are becoming more human.

“We’re moving into era of cognitive computing” that will have an effect on defence and commercial sector, he said in a pre-conference interview. Computer systems that will interact with people in a much more natural way than today.

“They learn, they reason and they interact with human users,” he said. “Imagine computers that can retrieve information, provide an understanding of it, present it to a peer (a person), provide a set of recommendations, listen to a query and engage in a dialogue to increase its understanding of that person.”

For example, it could work with a student by examining his or her academic record and, through interaction,  tailor course material to be presented at a pace the student can take.

This type of computing will change the way people interact with data, he said.

The model is IBM’s Watson supercomputer, which uses improvements in natural language processing and language parsing. In 2011 beat two champion (human) contestants on the game show Jeopardy.

(For those who spend too much time watching sc-fi, Jeopardy asks contestants to provide the question after being given the answer. For example, the answer is “Just one radio advertising song”*)

Watson is nowhere near commercial availability, but prototypes are in use with several organizations. A clinic in Cleveland is letting it analyze a patient’s records and then make recommendations for treatment. The idea is to free up a surgeon’s time for working in the operating room. IBM wants to use Watson as the starting point for system that can process larger datasets.

Lemnios was the assistant U.S. defense secretary for research and engineering before joining IBM [NYSE: IBM] last fall and says the Pentagon has been looking at the possibility of using cognitive computing systems.

Such systems could be tasked with managing enormous amounts of unstructured data that in some cases might not match easily — for example, two video streams of the same event but from different angles.

Today people try to make sense of such things, but, he said, the process is error-prone. A cognitive system could not only make recommendations to a staffer, but also explain how it came to those decisions.

Another possibility is — following the civilian educational model – personalized military training that understand the capabilities of a rookie soldier. A third possibility is using cognitive systems to link communications systems between allied armies.

That raises the question of whether there will be a computer arms race around the world. “What you’re seeing now is an information arms race, Lemnios replied. Certainly across the private sector the coin of the realm is handling large amounts of information rapidly. The barrier we see to the conventional approach is the effort needed to handle very large data sets is exceeding the ability of our systems –not just IBM systems — to do so … That is going to challenge everybody’s IT system. So we’ve got to thing about new ways to handle that explosion of data. And that’s the race that’s going on.”

UPDATE

After this story was published IBM said it will make the technology available as an online platform called Watson Developers Cloud where developers can create cognitive applications. “By sharing IBM Watson’s cognitive abilities with the world, we aim to fuel a new ecosystem that accelerates innovation, creativity and entrepreneurial spirit,” Michael Rhodin, senior vice-president of IBM’s software solutions group.

It said three companies will have Watson-related apps out next year: Fluid is creating an Expert Personal Shopper aimed at helping consumer buy products; MD Buyline will release an app called Hippocrates, a research assistant that will make recommendations to physicians;  and  Welltok, whose CafeWell Concierge will create what are called intelligent health itineraries sponsored by health plans for consumers.

Developers will be able to use their own data, access to data from providers to the Watson Content Store.

No pricing for the use of the Watson cloud was announced.

 

 

 

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