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Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Is IBM trying to kill off AI research by misusing the word "cognitive?"

Welcome to the Cognitive Era, says IBM’s advertising. I have been trying to figure out what that could mean. If you look inside IBM’s site you find they are proud of Cognitive Health and Cognitive Cooking to take two examples of what the any claims they make. (I was wondering what Cognitive Elder Care. might be) I have trouble knowing what these terms mean because I know what the word cognitive means, and therefore I am finding what IBM is saying incomprehensible.

Let’s start with a brief history of the word cognitive. The field of Cognitive Psychology began in the late 60’s. Until that time, oddly enough, “how the mind works” was not a subject studied in psychology. A journal with that name started about then and I published an article in that journal in 1972 in that journal’s 3rd volume.

In 1977, I helped start the field of Cognitive Science in an attempt to join together people from disciplines other than psychology, all of whom cared about how the mind works. “Cognitive” meant: human thinking. When I started a company (1981) and called it Cognitive Systems. I was trying to say that the programs we built were modelled on human thinking. Around that time, John Searle visited my lab for a week, and wrote a somewhat nasty article featuring the Chinese Room problem that I assume was meant to be an attack on me. He was attacking what was referred to then as the strong AI hypothesis that said that if a computer could do smart things, then it was thinking. This was never my position, but Searle talked more to my students during that week then he did to me, so I guess he thought I believed in the Strong AI hypothesis. I do not. 

I think that the human mind does many things and I want to know how it does them and I want to build computer programs that operate in the same way. I am interested more in people than in machines but I think that if we copied people on a computer we could have some machines that behave intelligently. I don’t actually think the machines themselves would know what they were doing or actually would be intelligent. I used to my AI classes that I was a “fleshist.” If a person said something I would think that that person was thinking, but if a machine said the same thing, I wouldn’t think that. Others disagree with me on this, but I have never been an advocate of the strong AI hypothesis.

Why am I saying all this now? I am trying to understand what IBM could possibly mean when it uses the word cognitive and announces that we are now in the “cognitive era”. Do they think they Watson is actually thinking? I certainly hope not.

Do they think that Watson is imitating how people think in some way? I can’t believe that they think that either. No one has ever proposed that machines that can search millions of pages of text are smart. Matching key words, no matter how well you do it, is not even a human capability much less one that underlies the human ability to think. 


When AI started, they were some major people associated with it, whom, of course I knew well. Marvin Minsky as interested in people first, machines second. Allan Newell was interested in people first and machines second, Herb Simon wanted to copy chess grand masters,   rather than build chess playing machines that won by being fast at search. Even John McCarthy, with whom I never agreed about anything, was trying to copy how the mind worked. I once asked him “how can you believe that the mind happens to work using a logic system invented in the 19th century?” (McCarthy thought all knowledge representation could be done using Predicate Calculus.)

That phrase, knowledge representation, is the right thing to think about. It is the cornerstone of what AI was always all about. We need to represent knowledge in some way before we can effectively use it in a computer program. AI people have always worried about knowledge representation.

But this idea seems have disappeared in recent AI work and does not exist at all in Watson. Now AI people worry about how many pages of text they can search and how match key words and phrases. (Take a look at what IBM says that Watson does in natural language processing and you will only hear about phrase matching.)

Back to Cognitive Health. I am very interested in getting computers to be able to be helpful in health care. Do I think that they can be helpful by searching millions of pages of text? Probably. 

But there are real questions about what can be done to help people using AI. I, for one, have many questions I would like to ask about drugs and health issues, as I age, and I find that asking a doctor isn't always helpful because not all doctors the answers, and asking a computer is sometimes helpful if it can match what you asked to some text that it happens to have. As I write this I have a question about a drug I am taking that no text I can find can actually  answer. I have been able to find an expert at a major hospital to ask this question and he told me that his my father was taking it, so he certainly thought it was safe. But my questions was more subtle than that, in part because it is a new drug and often little is really known about new (and highly promoted) drugs.  I really have no one to ask


Would I like a computer to be able to answer these questions? Of course. That is what AI was supposed to be all about. We always wanted to get computers to be really helpful using everyday English backed by a great deal of knowledge of a given domain.  But if IBM keeps claiming it has solved Cognitive Health, I am wondering how many people who might want to think up about new ways to represent  knowledge about how the body works and how drugs work, might stop working on what they care about and simply assume that IBM owns the turf and that there is no reason to try and compete with them. IBM is not trying to solve the problem I care about, which is getting access to knowledge that is easily comprehensible about problems everyday people actually have. A lot of that knowledge isn’t in any computer in the first place or is in academic journals, so all the key word search in  the world really will not help the average person much.

As for Cognitive Cooking, one of my PhD students  in the 80’s wrote a program called CHEF that reasoned from prior cases in order to invent new recipes using on the ingredients you happened to have on hand.  I am sure CHEF was better than the program that IBM is selling because it was based on case-based reasoning and not on matching key words.


IBM really has to stop saying Cognitive about  everything it is trying to sell. It is hurting our future because it is very likely to serve as a deterrent to more research on knowledge representation, real natural language processing and case based reasoning. These are important problems. They have not been solved and IBM needs to stop asserting that they are by claiming Watson to be “cognitive" when it actually does no thinking at all.

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