Cognitive computing will humanize technology, drive business decisions

In the next three to five years, organizations will see an unprecedented amount of disruption with the advancement of cognitive computing. And the pace of technological change isn’t set to slow down any time soon.

Communicate Influence speaks to Nigel Willson, a Global Strategist with Microsoft UK, about cognitive computing. Cognitive computing is set to have a massive impact on how businesses and individuals perform transactions, communicate, and interact with the world around them.

artificial intelligence
Nigel Willson

Humanizing technology through cognitive computing

Companies will face immense pressure to keep with technological change as software developments move ahead at warp speed. But Nigel cautions that technology projects can only be successful if they embrace the combination of people, processes, and technology.

Describe your role as a Global Strategist at Microsoft
I work with two of the top four international professional services companies and a global media company headquartered in the U.S. which produces film, TV and streaming services. I work with these clients to understand their business, strategy and technology needs and look to align Microsoft strategy, technology and innovation to help meet those business needs. For me it is critical to point out, it is about understanding their needs first, not to try and force fit our technology into their business.

Cloud (Office365 and Microsoft Azure) are top of mind for all of them, as are innovation areas like BlockChain, Mixed Reality and Artificial Intelligence. For them, and me, the rate of technology change over the last eighteen months has been as exciting as it has challenging!

In a recent Linkedin post you give a primer about cognitive computing services and how it’s becoming increasingly important. These technological changes are already impacting our lives in ways many of us don’t fully appreciate. There have been major cognitive computing announcements from Amazon (machine learning), Google (cognitive marketing), and more. First, can you give us a definition of cognitive computing? Can you tell us how businesses, including start-ups, can benefit from cognitive computing technologies?
Cognitive computing encompasses several technology areas such as Artificial Intelligence (AI), Machine Learning(ML), Human-Computer Interaction (HCI), and Natural Language Processing (NLP).

Cognitive computing technologies have surfaced in several familiar ways: Voice recognition in Siri, Cortana and Alexa, face recognition on the digital cameras we use and synthesized speech able to provide a voice to the voiceless.

The major technological changes have come from being able to use the computing power of the Cloud to process the large amounts of data needed to get the accuracy needed. So 2016 was a breakthrough year because technology was more accurate than humans in speech recognition and in the ability to lip read

The number of use cases is growing all the time. One I came across recently is to use face recognition to recognize who is in a meeting room, match them against a list of expected attendees and flag if anyone unexpected is there. Once in the meeting, organizers can use voice services to record the meeting and transcribe it straight into meeting notes by using voice recognition against registered voices to recognize who said what.

The cognitive services from Microsoft are delivered in the form of Application Programming Interfaces (APIs), which means the cognitive Cloud service can be called from as little as three lines of code. This means that it is incredibly simple to perform complex functions.

The benefits of using cognitive computing services are broad, but they provide a way of humanizing the interface to an application or system, such as: providing voice input to your application rather than using a keyboard, and having the application reading the results to you rather than reading it on a screen.

Another service you may have used is the ‘people who bought this, also bought this’ which many of us are familiar with from buying on sites like Amazon. The logic behind these services can easily be built into your own application using cognitive services.

I think cognitive services could be incredibly valuable to startups. They offer extremely sophisticated services and functions that are easy to use, consume and build into applications. They are also often priced per transaction (such as per picture processed) so are a very cost-effective way of using those services.

Disruptors vs innovators

One of your roles is to help companies develop disruptive innovations. A lot of people are confused about the difference between innovation and disruption. Caroline Howard, a staff writer with Forbes, said that disruptors are innovators, but not all innovators are disruptors. Can you illuminate the distinctions for us?
Disruption for me is about challenging set assumptions, processes and ways of working. Cloud is definitely a digital disruptor because it challenges where we store our data and the traditional role of the IT department in maintaining it. However, the underlying technology for the most part is not new or innovative.

Innovation on the other hand is about inventing or introducing something new that adds value, and there is an increasing diversity in the types of innovation, such as frugal innovation, where you look to innovate with a minimum set of features or functions.

Adoption is really important with innovation. You can have a great idea, but if it is hard or expensive to adopt, or if you haven’t thought about your audience, it is likely to fail.

I think that’s the point about not all innovators being disruptors – if your idea isn’t adopted then it can’t disrupt. That’s why increasingly innovation teams are formed from a wide range people from across the business.

I’ve recently been invited to several design and ideation sessions to give an external view, challenge assumptions and even to be on a panel to critique and comment on ideas. Collecting feedback on your idea or innovation is a critical part of the process.

Can you give some examples of some of the disruptive innovations you’re involved with, without naming clients, of course?
That’s a tough one! Every one likes to think their disruption innovation is unique, so even without giving customers’ names it would probably be giving too much away!

I can say that one disruptive innovation idea is around Blockchain. Blockchain has obvious uses in financial institutions. But there is growing interest in the use of Blockchain technology for holding digital identity and for providing digital rights management. They both have the potential to disrupt and displace existing technologies, although I think we are still in the early days of the development.

Unprecedented amount of technological change ahead

What technological challenges will businesses face in the next three to five years? And what solutions are you able to recommend or provide?
Product cycles at Microsoft used to be based on three- and five-year cycles and now we introduce updates to our Cloud services on a monthly basis – so I think the first thing to say the next three to five years will see an unprecedented amount of change and disruption.

It’s important to note that successful technology projects are a combination of people, processes, and technology. I say this because the faster that the technology moves, the greater the chance of the people and process element will get left behind.

It is already a challenge for lots of customers to keep pace with the rate of change, and we have real diversity in the workforce, some born into technology and others who still struggle to embrace it.

There is also a lot of technology out there that is a variation on a theme. Take, for example, collaborative working, which could be email, instant messaging, a slack-type environment or simple document sharing from a cloud drive. I think there will be a consolidation and integration of these types of technology. Choice is good, but too much choice is confusing and counter productive.

Shadow IT continues to be a challenge for a lot of customers. We all want instant solutions, and if the IT department says you can have a solution in six or 12 months, then many people will turn to a credit card to sign up to a cloud solution or buy a server and put it under a desk. This creates a big challenge if the solution needs integrating into the business down the line and is a nightmare for the security team.

There are also a lot of emerging technologies. Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality, Internet of Things, Artificial Intelligence, Blockchain, Virtual Assistants, Bots – the list is endless. I advise all my customers to consider business outcomes and use cases before looking too deeply at the technology. It is all too easy to find a great technology that has no direct business use, in which case you are back to being an ‘innovator but not a disruptor’.

Are software developers socially conscious?

Most people and businesses in developed countries embrace new software and technology if it offers cost-savings, new opportunities, or makes transactions easier. But often software developers and consumers forget the impact that some software can have on people’s lives. It’s not difficult to equate automation with job loss, and job loss can be detrimental to an individual’s health and have a financial impact on governments and tax payers. The web and technology writer Om Malik says there’s a real lack of empathy at Silicon Valley. Do you think that software developers need to be more socially conscious? Is is it possible to find a balance between the evolution of software and humanity/human empathy?
I think it is a great question, and also Om Malik’s piece is a great article. There is a lot of concern with the rapid development of Artificial Intelligence, Bots and Digital Assistants that we will re-visit the times of the industrial revolution and that people’s jobs will be replaced by machines.

As a technologist, it can be all too easy to be excited by the advances of technology and what it can offer and forget the human implications.

Also, if you look at the way film and TV portrays future technological advancement, it is most often in a negative way, which re-enforces people’s concerns.

I personally think organisations like Google, Microsoft, Amazon etc do show empathy at a corporate level and have an understanding of the impact of the technologies they are developing.

Recently, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella was asked about the implications of AI and he responded: “You can see the impact of AI through the lens of augmenting human capability, human enjoyment, human creativity. That’s the lens through which we’ll look at it.”

We definitely need a continued focus on the promotion of positive benefits of technological advancement. Used in the right way it can, and and already is, making massive positive change to people’s lives. One example of this is the Seeing AI project and another The Big Life Fix series by the BBC, where makers and software developers get together to solve real life problems and challenges with technology.

However, we also need to keep in mind that advancing technology can also be dividing and even scary to some people. I don’t think there is a magic solution to solve that – but I do think that it is important to continue to challenge and debate the issues to keep them top of mind and in focus.

Top technological changes in  2017

Each business is different and will have unique technological needs. Even so, can you tell us what key technological trends businesses must embrace to stay ahead?
Embracing the Cloud has to be number one, because there are so many cost and technology advantages of moving away from on-premises solutions and systems. The benefits of having an ‘evergreen’ system and use of the latest features and functions offers definite business advantages.

Next, find the value in your data. I think everyone gets the importance of data, but few companies extract the full value from it. A common term is ‘data exhaust’, where every system, device and application we use creates vast amounts of data and it is cheap to store it. The real value comes from what you do with it. I helped organize a Hackathon recently where we took a customer’s data, analyzed it and produced some visualizations in less than a day. Not a finished product by any stretch, but enough to see trends and patterns and get the customers buy in to take things further.

The leads on to something that is not really a technology trend, but I have noticed an increasing trend to just get on and do things. Things like designing thinking workshops, business innovation experiments, hackathons and rapid prototyping are popular with all my customers. It is the ‘fail fast (and cheaply)’ mentality.

Who have been the biggest influences on you, your thinking and your approach to your work?
There have been a number of large personalities working at Microsoft over the years, but I am a big fan of Rohit Bhargava and his non-obvious trends and his trend curation process. On the technology side I would say David Chappell.

Technology and software strategist Nigel Willson:

Nigel Willson helps customers digitally transform their businesses with Microsoft Technology and Innovation. He is currently working in Microsoft’s Enterprise Partner Group (EPG), which focuses on bringing innovative and creative solutions to enterprise-class customers. Nigel is based in Reading, west of London, in the U.K. You can read more about Nigel here and follow him on Twitter.

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Sheelagh Caygill

Sheelagh Caygill is a journalist, content marketer, and communications specialist. She has worked for newspapers, news organizations and in the corporate and non-profit sector in Canada and the U.K. Based in Toronto, she is freelancing and looking for a permanent position. Contact her via the contact form on this site or Linkedin.

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