In computer science theory there is a test of a machine's ability to think like a human. It is called the Turing test and involves a scenario where a participant will converse with two people that are in other rooms. One of the two people is in fact a computer and the other is human. If the participant cannot tell which is not human then the machine has passed the Turing test. This test was proposed by Alan Turing in 1950, well before we had the computing power available today. It seems we may have achieved this milestone. Jill Watson was one of 9 teaching assistants helping computer science students with online questions at Georgia Tech, and to most students she was very helpful. The only difference was that she was not human but powered by IBM's Watson cognitive computing platform. Jill had actually passed the Turing test.
Cognitive computing can be used for distilling large amounts of information and providing relevant answers to specialist questions. In an age of massive online open courses (MOOCs) where 1000's of students enroll in free courses, this augmented assisting can provide support where human abilities are not feasible nor capable. But it doesn't stop there. Watson is helping cancer patients find the best treatment based on medical research and patient history, providing legal advice, guiding financial planners to find the best advice for their clients and helping travellers find the best destination for them based on the best deals and social, economic and cultural preferences. In the information age, cognitive computing can provide the interface between humans and the large amount of data that is available. This is why Google have been so successful with their search engine. IBM's Watson has now commoditised this ability and we will be seeing it used in many other areas that we interact with. There is also an open source project, called NuPIC, which has an active community developing cognitive computing solutions based on streaming data (such as tweets or GPS information). There are many possible applications, these are exciting times indeed.