We are entering a new age in our relationship with technology, an age where our devices understand us as we communicate in human language. An age where machines know what we need before even we do. And an age where computers not only understand trends, but set them. At least, that’s the pitch. So what is cognitive computing, why does it matter, how will it change the digital landscape, and what is the role of the digital strategist within it?
Cognitive computing is a term coined by IBM and refers to “systems (that) are probabilistic. They generate not just answers to numerical problems, but hypotheses, reasoned arguments and recommendations about more complex — and meaningful — bodies of data”. The systems are adaptive, interactive, iterative and contextual. In other words, they learn over time by ingesting huge volumes of data and adjusting output as a result. They operate like the human mind without any human interaction.
The idea of cognitive computing is essentially a major step on the path to artificial intelligence. The first question we should ask ourselves is, is it real?
The concept of computers thinking for us is not new; it’s essentially what they do. Algorithms like Google’s even try to combine data points about our location and behaviour to personalize results based on what it thinks we need based on who we are. But cognitive computing is not about thinking for us; it’s about thinking like us. And the element that is necessary to make it effective, big data, has been with us for a while.
So what is it supposed to do? Think about this as a scenario; your headphones know your location, monitor your temperature, heartbeat and movement. They ingest data from your connected home to understand your eating habits. They access your calendar to see that you have a dinner appointment and scan the menu of the restaurant, including calorific content. Without prompting, they suggest to you what you should eat for the sake of your health, and they do so in natural language, allowing you to do the same without having to modify how you speak. This is cognitive computing, understanding content and context, putting these elements together with human reasoning and communicating them in natural language. So if a machine can make rational decisions, how about emotional ones? Can it understand art? Can it suggest taste? Can it recognize beauty? If it can do these things, it would not only be able to spot trends, it could create them. Through analysis of gigantic volumes of data, it could set the zeitgeist. And despite the need for healthy cynicism about any type of hype, it is important to understand that this is something that is not likely to happen; it is something that is going to happen.
Where does the digital strategist fit in all this? Will our role become obsolete in this revolution? I would argue that out of all digital marketing functions, the role of the strategist will be the last one to become obsolete. In fact, we might be the last people standing in this space. Look at how programmatic platforms have transformed media buying functions, how bid management platforms have not only made search far more effective, but also considerably more efficient, and how dynamic web environments have dramatically cut into creative and development time. Any role that is built around a single function is in danger of being eliminated, or at least rationalized. The role of the strategist, with the complexity of understanding the mechanics of digital marketing with the human element, the stitching together of disparate digital channels and platforms, and the need for both IQ and EQ makes it incredibly difficult to automate. If this role is automated, then as the Marquise de Pompadour once said, “Après nous le deluge”. So attain your experience. Never stop learning. Practice your skills. Because as digital strategists, we welcome our robot overlords!
Next week on octopus, we will continue to explore the role of the digital strategist. Please be sure to comment below. I’d love to hear from you. Please subscribe for alerts about new episodes and content. Thank you for listening to octopus. I’m Nasser Sahlool.