Thursday, December 15, 2011

Talking About an Intelligent Future

The Waiting Room

They say that the future belongs to those who can predict it. It sounds simple and honestly useless especially since there isn’t anyone in this world who has that ability. Maybe if we extend that saying to include ‘those who can predict the future with the most accuracy’, it would sound more logical. I have written before in a post titled ‘On Intelligence’ where I back Jeff Hawkin’s theory that intelligence is merely the interrelatedness of memory and prediction. In this post, I would like to elaborate more on the process of predicting, which lies discreetly on the elicitation of patterns from completely random memory, data or any other scattered things. These things that seem completely random initially will make a whole lot of sense when a pattern is elicited from it. From patterns, predictions are born. Patterns play a huge role in in visual arts, where certain patterns of various colour shapes and sizes appeal to the visual. They also play role in music, where certain arrangements of sound notes appeal to the human ear. The ability to find patterns from human behaviour and predict from it has been used my marketing genius to advertise and sell their products. It has also been used by politicians to gain popularity among the people. The ability to elicit patterns from economic data has saved countries from economic meltdown. Patterns of disease spread have been elicited to prevent infections from becoming increasingly epidemic. In short, pattern exists in everything in this world, as if the world itself is made out of patterns.

I was lucky enough to be invited to International Business Machines (IBM) headquarters in Damansara to get a direct input from IBM Malaysia’s Chief Technologist about the future of predictions. Now, why IBM? In my previous post ‘On Intelligence’, I have summed up that intelligence occurs when huge memories are stored and there exists extensive networks linking them together. The simple reason is that the technological capabilities to store large amounts of memory and create extensive networks covering them lie within the technological pioneers who mostly work for corporate giants, and IBM is one of them. On my visit there, I was introduced to a supercomputer they casually call Mr Watson. Almost brain-like (emphasize the word almost), Mr Watson crunches mind numbing data from its super huge memory and uses complicated algorithms (and I mean really complicated algorithms) to predict patterns from those random data and conclude by predicting an outcome. To show its capabilities, Mr Watson contested in the reality TV game show ‘Jeopardy’ and outwitted two of the game’s best performing human contestants. He was not connected to the web during the show.

But Mr Watson was created for a larger purpose than winning cash in ‘Jeapordy’. The people at IBM has a way of summing up what Watson’s purpose is: ‘To have computers start to interact in natural human terms across a range of applications and processes, understanding the questions that humans ask and providing answers that humans can understand and justify’. In the world we live today, huge amounts of data on various things has been obtained everywhere and on anything. However, they remain mainly scattered and largely give no meaning until someone does extensive research on it. For example, medical records are now compiled in digitally, but in order to see a pattern emerging from those data, researchers need to do laborious work of statistical analysis. However, the research outcome depends on the topic decided by the researcher. In other words, the researcher mainly chooses which pattern related to the topic that he wishes to elicit from those set of data, and his statistical analysis proves the pattern exist (hypothesis accepted) or not (hypothesis rejected). The eyes do not see what the mind doesn’t know. Researchers sometimes miss the subtle patterns that largely remain obscure. With a super computer that detects all possible patterns, this human limitation can be overcome. Medical researchers would also most likely rely on medical records, engineering researchers would rely on engineering records, and economic researchers would rely on economic data and so on. Rarely there is collaboration between fields, where in reality, each field always overlaps. When there is a huge and intelligent place to store all these data and process and make predictions from them, a whole new revolution in human history might take place.

With IBM Malaysia's Chief Technologist (second from left) and Head of Marketing (leftmost)

Think about the future with a technology like this. Think about a more intelligent future where traffic is diverted through its predictions of congestion and weather and reduces the number of traffic accidents. Think about a future of public safety where security is increased in places predicted to be high in crime rates and hence fight organized crime. Think about the future of commerce where the right business targets the precise market predicted. Think about the future of education where knowledge is targeted to those who would benefit from them most. Last and definitely not least, think about the future of medicine and healthcare. IBM has envisioning a smarter healthcare, and is how we got in contact in the first place. We were collaborating for a ‘Smarter Healthcare’ week and that is why they wanted to talk and explain in explicit details about this future technology. IBM is smart enough to realize that this technology is too early a technology to be introduced to those who are already doctors today. They target medical students, as the President of the Malaysian Medical Student Association, it is my job to expose the future doctors towards this future of possibilities. Someday, medical records might all be stored in a huge centralized system that automatically detects patterns of disease and relates it to other aspects such as lifestyle, economic status and family history. However, the question that remains to be asked is how do we maintain patient’s confidentiality in pursuit of this new technology? That question is to be answered by our generation.

One of IBM's vision

The integration between these data can no longer be delayed. When these data can be compiled into a single storage, and data from various fields like medicine, engineering, architecture, economic and social science brought together by networks to give a meaning. There could be a possibility to create a whole new intelligent world. Sometimes we are too frightened by Sci-fi Hollywood movies where machines overtook humans and conquer the world. But humans will never become obsolete because machines never make decisions. They only assist in making decisions. Perhaps when skeptics are overcome, we are well on our way towards a better, smarter future.

In front of IBM's logo
Cool hallway!

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