BACP Insight

27 Nov

Empowered By The Machine

Posted by Warren Guillema

Ever since early humans started making tools from stone, wood, and bone, technology has guided the development of our species through increased efficiency and capability.

Flash forward 10 million years, and technology has evolved beyond recognition; from virtual and augmented reality, to smart devices and the Internet of Things. When it comes to business, one of the most promising technological developments comes from the world of artificial intelligence (AI); more specifically, cognitive computing. But even though cognitive computing is increasing in popularity and drawing the attention of tech-savvy venture capitalists, many business owners remain in the dark.

In this article, I’ll give you a working understanding of what cognitive computing is, and how it can provide value to your business through product and service innovation. 

What Is Cognitive Computing?

Simply put, cognitive computing entails technologies that are able to fulfil the same kind of functions as the human brain – sensing, understanding, and hypothesising – but far quicker, and on a much larger scale.


IBM’s cognitive computing platform – Watson – is leading the way in practical cognitive technology, and is something of a cognitive computing archetype. Combining deep natural language processing with machine learning and real-time computing, Watson can quickly analyse vast quantities of unstructured data – that is, data that isn’t neatly structured in tables and predefined data models. This includes information like emails, social media posts, journals, websites, and even images and video.

Because its able to understand context as opposed to simple keyword recognition, Watson can determine numerous hypotheses for a given question. It then ranks potential answers based on confidence, giving only the highest ranking answers to the human who asked the question. And remember, all of this happens in real-time. To see Watson in action, here’s a clip of its lauded 2011 Jeopardy victory. Note how before answering any of the questions, you can see the top three potential answers with their confidence rankings.

How can cognitive computing affect my business?

In today’s business environment, companies that want to remain relevant need to differentiate themselves through value and technological dexterity, rather than competitive pricing. This is primarily due to the threat of disruption, in which asymmetric competition offers value to your customers that your company is simply unable to realistically compete with. Many of today’s businesses are dependent on traditional operating models that are, quite simply, obsolete in the modern digital age.

It doesn’t matter how well you market your product or lower your price – if your customers can receive better value and convenience from a competitor outside your industry, you’re going to lose them. Think Uber and the taxi industry; Netflix and Blockbuster. This is the nature of the disruptive world we live in, and your choice between taking initiative and burying your head in the sand will decide your future success.

How can cognitive computing affect my business?

Cognitive technology can help you achieve this and it is where systems like Watson enter the picture. Cognitive computing can be applied to many areas of your business, no matter the industry, to better inform business decisions and add value to your customer experience.

Let’s take a look at examples of how the different aspects of cognitive computing can be applied in the real world:


Computers that can perceive the world and sense information can help retailers gain a better understanding of foot traffic in their stores, which can in turn provide insight into optimal layout and promotional activities.


By using natural language processing and the ability to scan vast quantities of unstructured data, cognitive computing has been used to assist medical diagnostics. Acting as a virtual expert, the computer can infer solutions or treatments from patient data and a database of medical journals and other information. The doctor can then use this input to better inform their diagnosis or treatment plan. This has been used to remarkable effect with IBM Watson for Oncology.


Autonomous machines that are able to decide on a best action – and take it – are perhaps best known in the context of self-driving cars. IBM has recently involved Watson in the autonomous vehicle landscape with Olli, a self-driving minibus It’s worth noting, however, that Watson’s involvement focuses more on improving the passenger experience than getting Olli from A to B.


Cognitive technologies have been highly effective in the financial industry, particularly when it comes to machine learning and pattern recognition. The system is able to learn and recognize patterns in a customer’s account activity, and then alert the bank in the case of potentially fraudulent anomalous behaviour. Learning consumer behaviour can also foster product and service innovation through promotional activities and value adds that are customized on an individual basis.

Realised by organisations of all kinds and sizes

Cognitive technologies are, admittedly, in their infancy. But the value they can offer businesses is already undeniable, and can be felt at every stage of the production and delivery cycle. No matter where technology takes us in the coming years and decades, history will be on the side of the innovators and early adopters. To echo this topical analysis from Gartner, the risk of investing too late is far greater than the risk of investing too soon.


As an IBM partner, we have the expertise to utilise IBM Watson Platform services to develop cognitive-powered applications from the ground up or embed existing capabilities within a client’s existing solutions. Get in touch to find out more. 

Warren Guillema

Warren Guillema

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Certified AI and Machine Learning professional focused on the application of AI to drive business value and performance improvement.

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