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Computers have come a long way: while there’s some debate as to what constitutes the first computer, the ENIAC built from 1943-1946 is considered by most to be the first one

Occupying 1,800 square feet, the ENIAC weighed a whopping 50 tons, and operated on 18,000 vacuum tubes. Despite it’s massive size, it’s computing power would be laughable compared to today’s smartphones.

By the 90s, computers were able to best even the most intelligent humans as demonstrated by Deep Blue’s defeat of the chess champion, Garry Kasporov in 1997. As impressive as that achievement was, however, computers still weren’t capable of even the most simple cognitive tasks that a child could perform. Chess is a game of numbers and logic. And though computers had become capable of performing a massive number of calculations simultaneously, they still were only as good as their programming.

In 2011 when IBM’s computer, Watson, bested Brad Rutter and Ken Jennings in a game of jeopardy, people chalked it up to just another publicity stunt. What people didn’t realize is that a new era of computing had been ushered in.

Cognitive computing

What makes IBM’s Watson’s Jeopardy victory so impressive is that it required not only an encyclopedic amount of knowledge, but also an understanding of the English language. In order to win at Jeopardy, a computer would have to be able to understand the clue and then give the appropriate response in the form of a question.

While the task might seem easy enough, it is anything but. Human language is very ambiguous. There are hundreds of thousands of words in the English language and trillions and trillions of possible sentences. Programming a computer to know the meaning of every sentence would be impossible. Instead a computer would have to be programmed to be able to parse language. Watson has an understanding of syntax and can analyze human speech to arrive at meaning. Unlike other computers, Watson didn’t need to be programmed to win at Jeopardy. It was programmed to learn and develop a winning strategy.

Implications of cognitive computing

The field of cognitive computing is still in its infancy. But already there are some exciting implications. As computers improve their ability to learn and understand there’s no limit to what they can accomplish. While computers have always been capable of computing massive number of calculations, they’ve never before been able to take into account context like humans can. With cognitive computing, computers can combine the best of both worlds. They have the ability to perform complex calculations and analyze with great depth while at the same time using environmental cues in order to take context into account. In the near future, computers will be capable of understanding natural language as never before. One possible use of this technology is in automated text response. With computers that can receive, analyze, and respond to texts automatically, SMS marketing can be a two-way form of communication.

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