Faculty explore era of cognitive computing at NYC event

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Melissa Osgood

Computer science has never been in a stronger position to grow and interact with the social sciences, Cornell professors said Feb. 8 in Manhattan at “Cognitive Computing and Beyond: Cornell Meets Watson,” an event that highlighted the latest research at Computing and Information Science (CIS) and the College of Engineering.

According to Greg Morrisett, dean of CIS, who moderated the panel:

  • Venture capital investments are growing by 50 percent annually, totaling about $700 million last year.
  • About 80 percent of the world’s data remains “invisible” to computers.
  • Enrollment in CIS departments of computer science, information science and statistical science have tripled over the last 10 years.

Emmanuel Giannelis, associate dean for research and graduate studies in the College of Engineering, said, “Computing is pervasive, and it goes along with so many different fields in the college.”

Cornell Tech is not the university’s only example of entrepreneurial activities, Giannelis said, noting that Cornell Engineering offers new fellowships to doctoral candidates to translate their discoveries into real-world applications.

Rapidly changing frontiers in computing include audio and visual applications. Michael Picheny, senior manager at IBM Watson, said researchers continue to work on ways to make computers speak and listen.

“Birds do it. Bees do it. People with complete ease do it,” Picheny said. “But computers don’t do it well even after years of research.”

Speech recognition works well for controlled speech, Picheny said, but such factors as background noise, accents, speaking style and speaker variation cause error rates of 30 to 40 percent while translating conversation to text.

“We’ve been hammering away at this for a very long time,” Picheny said, noting that IBM has been working on it since 1961.

Picheny displayed examples of computerized translations from text to sound of a speech by Cornell President Elizabeth Garrett and the university’s alma mater: “Far Above Cayuga’s Waters.”

IBM has reduced translation error rates to 8 to 14 percent, he said, but there’s still much room for improvement. In the translation of the alma mater, for example, the computerized voice mispronounced “alma mater” every time.

Possibly the fastest-evolving new field for computer researchers is what’s being called “visual anthropology.”

Kavita Bala, Cornell professor of computer science, said that a staggering 1.8 billion images are being shared daily on the Internet via social media.

“This is an immense quantity of data,” Bala said, before showing examples of how image research can be used in marketing and analysis.

During a reception afterward, some of the more than 100 attendees were reminded that robots are far from mastering the art of conversation. In a demonstration of an IBM robot called Natalie, the device was conversing seamlessly until she was asked: “I hear you’re working on some new projects?”

Natalie went silent.

She was asked again. No answer.

A couple of guests joked, “Maybe it’s top secret. Classified.”

Jon Craig ’80 is a journalist based in Westchester County, New York.

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