Monthly Archives: December 2016

A Point of View on Cognitive Computing – Richard Cure

If 2015 was the year of Cloud, Analytics, Mobile, Social and Security, 2016 was the year of Cognitive.

Cognitive is the big word at IBM right now so I thought it would be an appropriate time to share my understanding of cognitive computing and how I see it relates to business and technology.

Firstly I hear you asking, what does cognitive even mean?

Well, cognitive is the word which is used to describe systems which can understand, reason and learn. Like all IT systems, cognitive systems rely on data, which is exponentially increasing every year – in fact nowadays most businesses probably have too much data – and more importantly aren’t sure how to best go about creating value from it. Cognitive systems help to reveal patterns and relationships across data which could previously not be discovered by other means.

As the explosion of data gets ever bigger, consultancies such as IBM are helping their clients understand and refine their data better by building or integrating cognitive systems into their existing systems so they get better value from their data. And it’s not just IBM – Microsoft has Cortana, Facebook is developing chatbots, Amazon has its Echo product which comes with its own assistant Alexa, and in fact you could argue those of us with iPhones already have pocket cognitive assistants in the form of Siri, so Apple are in on it too. It’s safe to say cognitive is a competitive market already.

Those IBMers reading may well (and should!) know that Watson is IBM’s lead brand in cognitive. Watson (the question and answer based computer system) famously beat human contestants on the US game show Jeopardy in 2011 which gave way to its own dedicated business units shortly after. Today, thousands of people work on Watson and its various umbrella products such as Watson Analytics and Watson Developer Cloud at IBM across the world.

So how does it work?

At a high level, Watson is a mix of different systems and technologies – leveraging artificial intelligence, machine learning and natural language capabilities. It understands questions asked from end-users – in a variety of different languages! – by using semantic parsing, which is fancy for breaking up the words in the question to understand what the question is asking. It then works off a “corpus” of knowledge, which is made up of structured data, such as tables and databases, and unstructured data, such as articles and audio. Watson then uses advanced computational techniques to very quickly extract information related to the question from its corpus.

Finally, it analyses what it understands it has been asked against what it knows to be correct and produces answers with a confidence level of accuracy – a bit like a super-powered search engine – but you don’t have to go through each result to find what you are looking for, Watson can do this for you which is what makes it so powerful.

However for this to work, firstly a given instance of Watson to be used must be “trained” using a variety of sources – human experts teaching it the right answers to questions, machine learning techniques, and feeding interactions between real life users and Watson into its corpus of knowledge. It also needs to hold data based on the questions it may receive. The advantage of this is that Watson can become very specialised in a certain areas, for example medicine or law. The disadvantage is that it requires a lot of time (and money!) to train it to answer questions and know what is actually correct because well, even Watson can’t know everything.

So overall, Watson is a system which runs analytics against a body of data to get insights from what it has been taught to be correct from experts, evidence, and real interaction, and can estimate a level of confidence to potential responses to its requests. The end goal of this technology is to inform experts to make better decisions, not to replace them, especially in data intensive industries.

The reason why these new-age systems are called cognitive is that they display very similar capabilities to the way the human brain responds to requests to do something. For example every time you must make a decision to do something you are making it based on from what you learnt from experts (teachers, education), from evidence (what you know to be correct, your values), and from interactions (your life experiences) and respond accordingly.

Already IBM has exploited Watson in almost every industry, notably in healthcare and automotive industries. At a recent conference in Las Vegas called “World of Watson”, IBM CEO Ginni Rometty and a Japanese professor announced that by using Watson they discovered a patient was suffering from a different, rare form of leukemia by feeding the patient’s data into Watson. Ultimately they were able to treat the patient accordingly after doctors by themselves were unable to come to a diagnosis, therefore potentially saving the patient’s life. How cool is that!


It’s all very well having this cool technology, however to gain approval for projects involving cognitive, there must be a good business case. In my opinion, these are the main benefits to business:

Customers have better engagement experiences with cognitive systems. To illustrate, I’ll use an example of a situation that probably frustrates all of us. When dialling customer service to get a quote from an insurance company, instead of being put on hold for half an hour and losing a potential customer, we could access a cognitive chatbot who could handle the initial interaction and gather the simple details that every quote needs, speeding up the time taken to handle the quote. But if it got into any trouble or could not handle the interaction we could be put through to a human user.

Decision makers are better informed by cognitive systems. Business leaders can gain relevant insights, tailored to their industry, from cognitive systems helping them understand more about their customers, markets, and what people are saying about their products and services from different sources of data – and respond to this information, often in real time.

They help us to explore and discover about the world and ourselves even more. Cognitive systems are making their way into the healthcare industry, assisting doctors and nurses to keep us healthier, and travel companies are creating tailored experiences for each customer by pairing cognitive systems with the vast amount of data they hold about different countries, cities and travel options like flights and trains.


It’s obvious that these systems do have potential, however we must be careful in the way we use them. What they can’t do is analyse the risk that might not be represented in the data such as environments, people and cultures.

There are still limitations to these technologies – e.g. if a predictive model suggests to buy oil in the Middle East because it is likely to be cheaper than buying oil elsewhere in the world, but the country is in conflict and its leaders are in danger and is not represented in the model, then this must be factored into the decision – in the end you can’t hold machines accountable for bad decisions.

Furthermore, I would say that smart as computers may become, there will always be a humanity gap between humans and computers, as they will always lack fundamental human abilities such as consciousness and those intangibles things which make us human such as feelings and thoughts.

So there’s a way to go before we see the film “I, Robot” come to life.


Given the rapid pace of innovation in the tech industry, I also believe that cognitive systems will become more accessible to the public not too far in the future too, just in the same way that the smartphone did in the previous decade.

So overall, I see exciting times ahead in technology at IBM and at the cutting edge in this industry. Happy December to everyone and a very Merry Christmas to you all! See you in the new year,

Richard Cure.

School vs. Corporate Environment – Sarah Naylor

I have now been working at IBM for five months and as we are swiftly approaching year end, I thought it would be perfect timing to reflect on the lessons I have learnt since starting my apprenticeship in HR and the big differences between being in a school environment vs. a corporate environment.

Kick-starting your career early definitely does have its perks. Being able to able to afford nice holidays, a car and save for a flat all on top of being able to gain my CIPD qualification and valuable work experience has been a bonus.

The biggest challenge for me has been getting used to being in a professional environment every day where your colleagues rely on your support and you have job responsibilities to deliver day in- day out. Going from a six-hour day at school to a full-time job as well as a 100 mile all-round commute each day has definitely taken some getting used to! I have already learnt some foundation skills which could tackle these challenges such has time-management, prioritising and knowing that it is ok to say ‘no’ if you don’t think you will be able to deliver something to a high-standard and on time. I also hope to put these valuable skills into practice as I begin my CIPD qualification in the new year.

In the last four months, I feel I have grown from being the typical, moody teenager who didn’t want to get out of bed in the morning, to an adult (sometimes still moody if you catch me before my morning cup of coffee). IBM has supported me with such a big life change and I certainly would recommend this route to anyone who is looking to do something fun, challenging, eye-opening and to earn whilst you learn all at once.

My main goal for 2017 is to keep asking questions. As a newbie, it is a common trait to feel guilty for repeatedly asking why we do things the way we do, but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. This is something that is encouraged at IBM and within my team, as it forces you to question the status quo and ask yourself if there is a more efficient way of working or re-inventing the current processes already in place. I am also really excited to have been chosen as 1/9 representing IBM in the Brathay Apprentice Challenge 2017 in search for the English apprentice team of the year. This will be a great opportunity to meet more apprentices, promote apprenticeships to school leavers and to give back to the local community.

As I go back to school this Thursday to collect my A-level certificates at the annual ex-year 13 prize giving, I will be returning this time with a more independent mind and a mature, confident and individual personality which has been brought to life upon joining IBM.

Sarah Naylor.

Goals – What are they worth? – Will Spiers

Within IBM – and probably almost all organisation for that matter – you’re driven to create goals. They create focus, allow you to measure progress, they are motivating and help drive overall direction. They come in many variations, from global organisation wide goals, to ones at an individual level. Now personally, I’ve always been an awful goal setter, and I’d be the first to admit I always saw them as more of a tick box exercise than something to actually work against and track the progress of. However, IBM introduced a specific tool recently for setting and tracking goals, I’d never of assumed it would genuinely the change the way I see and set my goals – but it certainly has. I’d be dramatic if I called it an epiphany, but it’s something loosely along those lines; when I had some spare time at the beginning of this year, I began to invest more time in updating my goals in the tool and plotting my progress consistently each week. Getting this into my routine and creating some discipline around doing it means I now rarely forget, often updating nothing and other times adding lengthy editions – it’s all valuable as it draws you back to that focal point. The tool enables this style of regular updates very well, much better in fact than the previous system of setting goals at the beginning of the year, and then generally waiting till the end to evaluate them in any depth – it’s certainly a testament to the tool that I’ve changed my ways! Now because of my new and improved drive to set and stick to goals, I thought it would be interesting to write a blog post exploring the different types of goals, what I feel I’ve learnt over the past year or so and my plans for 2017.

I think it’s important to set apart two different types of goals – those driven for personal development reasons and those related to a project. I think these are both of equal importance, but generally project related goals (for me at least) are more clear cut – you hit that deadline or you don’t, you successfully implement that release or you don’t. Now this is undoubtedly simplifying it somewhat, but I think the point stands – project goals are less around creating your own direction and more about pulling out what you’re required to do in your day job, and placing some kind of measurement around it to ensure you’re accountable and your performance is measurable. In comparison, personal development goals need to be driven largely from within, which is something I’ve personally found tricky – if you don’t know definitively what you want to do in 10 years’ time, how can you know where to aim? The last point brings me to something else I want to elaborate on; you should have goals set with different timescales, for example it’s not practical to work against a 10 year goal on a daily basis, it would be simply overwhelming, you have to break this down into smaller goals.

So what have I done to improve? Well, throughout 2016 I’ve taken a few steps to try and improve my goal setting. Firstly, I sit and I think about what I actually want to achieve and where I want to be in a years’ time. I then try to break this down and look at how I can build to that point, these different steps are what make up the basis of my goals. After which I try to ensure that each different aspect has an element that makes me accountable, for instance if I put a specific time against achieving something it’s then clear cut if I’ve failed – this is what helps constantly drive me to succeed.

What do I want to achieve in 2017? Despite us still being within the bounds of 2016, I’ve already begun to think about what personal development goals I’m going to set myself for the coming year. Now one thing that really hit me this year, was the benefit of certifications, having some kind of formal recognition of a skill or attribute can be incredibly valuable for IBM, our clients and at a personal level. Being within Foundation, we apprentices are incredibly lucky that there is a whole host of certifications on offer, as such, over the past few months I’ve been looking into which of these would benefit me the most, and have now begun to plan them in for next year – currently it’s Agile and Prince, the former being a forward thinking methodology that’s becoming increasingly popular across IBM and the wider industry, and the latter being a well-established and widely used project management framework. Both of these are easily made into goals that are specific, measurable and achievable. Some of my goals are also spanning wider than just a year, and I shall be taking them across to 2017 with me to continue working against – this has been the case for many of my project related goals, given that the majority of my deadlines are not this time year.

So that’s my whistle stop tour of my goals, I hope all have a good Christmas and I shall likely be back in 2017 with more blogs – let’s see what the new year brings, perhaps an update on the progress of my goals at some stage?

Will Spiers.

2016 Year in Review – John Longworth

So, the year’s coming to an end and it’s time for my final blog post of 2016. I thought the best thing would be for me to do a recap and short summary of how things have gone. Firstly and most importantly, I’ve officially had my Career Framework signed off, which means I will eventually move out of Foundation (and essentially complete the Apprenticeship) at some point in the New Year. Putting 3+ years into something and to finally be told you’ve completed it is definitely an achievement worth mentioning. So I am!

Second small win of the year would have to be moving accounts to Hursley. Which is surprisingly much bigger than I was expecting, moving from the relatively small Preston account!. This also involved getting onto TAP (Temporary accommodation) and therefore getting the keys for and moving into my shiny new flat in Southampton. Top Tip – Prepare before moving into somewhere new if you do get TAP, having no WiFi and TV for 2 weeks is no fun at all. Also, Amazon is your friend. Moving in and gaining the independence which you don’t get while at home was something I didn’t know what to expect out of. But I reckon I’ve took to it like a fish in water, some may disagree, but I’m still alive (essential) and my Christmas decorations, including tree are already up (even more essential), so I reckon I’ve not done too bad for a newbie.

Back to the moving part, moving accounts has definitely been a challenge. The Change Management role which I moved to has potentially made it more confusing than I initially anticipated. Change Management is a team of 2 and we look after all the changes for the multitudes (probably an understatement) of projects ran on the account. Sounds easy right? So having to learn literally every project on the account and what fits in where certainly isn’t easy, but I’ve given it my best shot and I can’t say it’s gone too badly. There’s a lot to take in when you move to a new project, as I’m sure most are aware. But for any that don’t know the pain yet (firstly, you will), expect to leave work, a lot of days, not knowing what even went on in the past 8 hours. It does eventually click, just got to keep trying!

Trying to keep this short, so probably (definitely)  missing out things which should be included. E.g Attending the Think Foundation event in September, learning a lot about Cognitive in IBM, listening to some rather interesting speakers (Including Olympic Gold Medallist James Cracknell!) and having an overall brilliant day. So, speaking on behalf of most people who attended I’m sure, big thanks to Foundation, for putting on that event, and keep them coming in the future!. After saying I’m keeping it short then going on that tangent, I should probably just summarise before I end up writing even more and literally staying in work forever (It’s already 6:30pm!)

So overall, the years had it’s ups and down, as years tend to do, but it’s been a mostly positive year for sure. Huge thanks to all the people I’ve met along the way and the people who’ve given me opportunities I’d otherwise not have had (Including this blog, so thanks to Craig and Avtar for having me on here) and I look forward to seeing or working with most of you again in the coming year.

Thanks for anyone who’s read whatever I’ve written in the past 12 months and I’m sure our paths will end up crossing at some point, they do seem to in IBM! Hopefully it’s been enjoyable and as it’s now December, should wish you all a Happy Holidays and overall just look forward to see what madness 2017 brings!

John Longworth.