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Symposium on Cognitive Computing

On June 18, 2015, the American Academy convened experts and practitioners from a variety of fields for a demonstration of the capabilities of IBM Watson, as well as panel discussions on cognitive computing’s potential impacts on health care and education.

In his opening remarks, excerpted here, Dr. Fanton invokes a presentation of Alexander Graham Bell’s first paper about the telephone as an indication of the Academy’s tradition of showcasing new technologies.

The Academy was founded in 1780, during the American Revolution, by John Adams, James Bowdoin, John Hancock, and other leaders who helped establish the new nation. The Academy’s founders believed that a strong republic must be grounded in open discourse, engaged scholarship, and an informed and active citizenry. Over time, the Academy has expanded to include leaders in all fields and disciplines, many of whom work together to address topics both of timely and abiding concern.

Throughout its history, the Academy has helped to introduce new ideas to the scholarly community as well as to the general public. It provided a venue for the earliest American debates about Darwin’s theory of evolution. It was instrumental in the creation of major scholarly organizations like the Smithsonian Institution and the American Council of Learned Societies. And it encouraged the development of an entirely new field of inquiry with its work on nuclear arms control in the early 1960s.

We also have a history of spotlighting new technologies. Perhaps the most important event of this kind took place on May 10, 1876, when Alexander Graham Bell presented the first paper on his new invention, the telephone, at an Academy meeting. Here is the way Bell described the first telephone call to Academy Fellows, as published in our proceedings:

“When two persons sang simultaneously into the instrument, two notes were emitted simultaneously by the telephone in the other house. A friend was sent into the adjoining building to note the effect produced by articulate speech. I placed the membrane of the telephone near my mouth, and uttered the sentence, “Do you understand what I say?” Presently an answer was returned through the instrument in my hand. Articulate words proceeded from the clock-spring attached to the membrane, and I heard the sentence: “Yes, I understand you perfectly.”

Decades later, in a speech delivered in Boston, at the first meeting of the Telephone Pioneers’ Association, Bell explained his reason for presenting this paper at the Academy:

“In the case of new inventions we are generally led to believe that the public is ready to swallow anything, but that grave scientific men are the most skeptical of all. I found this not to be true in the case of the telephone. The public generally and the business men of the country were very slow to perceive any value in the telephone. The scientific world, on the other hand, took it up at once. My first paper upon the subject was delivered here in Boston before the American Academy of Arts and Sciences on May 10, 1876.”

For Bell, it was the approval of the “grave scientific men,” as represented by the American Academy, that helped to transform his telephone from a technological fad into a device that permanently changed the way humans communicate. Then, as now, Academy members have the expertise and the imagination, as well as the skepticism, to be able to see the true value of technological innovations, to recognize new opportunities for adoption, and to explore unintended consequences. It is in this tradition that we have gathered to discuss the potential benefits and consequences of cognitive computing.

Our focus today is IBM’s cognitive technology known as Watson. The New York Times described Watson as having an “eerily humanlike ability to untangle astonishingly coy clues.” Like other cognitive systems, it can analyze language and answer questions. But unlike other systems designed to offer a single solution to a problem, Watson generates hundreds of possible solutions. With training by professionals, Watson may well address some of the most complex questions of our times.

It also presents new challenges for researchers, who must learn new methods as technology changes and accelerates the pace of discovery. For example, after processing seventy thousand academic papers related to a particular cancer gene, Watson was able to discover eight new drug target sites on the gene. Given this enormous potential, how will scientific research evolve in the next twenty years, and what adjustments will we need to make along the way?

We may also experience a similar transformation in education, as cognitive computing provides us with new ways to tailor what and how we teach. By analyzing volumes of longitudinal data on individual students, cognitive computing can help teachers at all educational levels develop personalized syllabi that take into account their students’ strengths and weaknesses.

In the years ahead, as we launch a new commission on postsecondary education, the American Academy will follow these developments in education with particular interest. The commission, with support from the Carnegie Corporation of New York, acknowledges that postsecondary education continues to be one of the most important avenues of opportunity in American society today, and that there are ever more options for how, where, and when Americans receive their postsecondary education. The commission will imagine how the nation’s education needs may change in twenty or thirty years and will offer recommendations for providing more Americans with an education that prepares them for meaningful employment, civic participation, and a lifetime of personal fulfillment.

As big data applications like Watson are integrated into education research, we will certainly face an entirely new range of questions: Are personalized syllabi more effective for students? Are they more efficient for teachers? Will every student have equal access to the technologies that make these changes possible? The Academy’s new commission will need to grapple with these questions as part of its own research, and I invite all of you to consider them, and offer your thoughts, during today’s discussions.

Now, to set the stage for the conversations that will follow, it is my great pleasure to introduce Michael Rhodin, Senior Vice President for IBM Watson. He has held a range of positions in his 31-year career at IBM. Prior to leading the effort to create Watson, he led the Software Solutions Group and helped to introduce IBM’s social business platform. He has been instrumental in formulating IBM’s international strategies, particularly as the former head of IBM Northeast Europe, which included Germany, the UK, Switzerland, and Austria. He is also a champion of STEM education. He studied computer science at the University of Michigan and now serves on the University of Michigan Computer Science and Engineering National Advisory Board. Please join me in welcoming Michael Rhodin.

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