Artificial intelligence, or AI, powers many of the features of modern eLearningchatbots, personalized or adaptive eLearning, even content curation. New, powerful iterations of these tools take advantage of cognitive computing, what the Future Today Institute (FTI) heralds as the third era of computing.

Early computers were essentially tabulating machines. Following the tabulating era came what FTI refers to as the “programmable systems” era. Programmable computers did exactly (and only) what they were told to do.

The dawning third era features computers that learn, that solve problems, detect patterns, and apply reasoning. They use what is termed “natural language processing” to interact with humans in ways that feel like conversations. In this era of artificial intelligence, the computers mimic “some operations of the human mind, such as making decisions based on data, recognizing objects and speech, and translating languages,” Jane Bozarth, the Guild’s research director, wrote in Artificial Intelligence Across Industries: Where Does L&D Fit?

A well-known example of cognitive computing is IBM’s Watson, the computer that competed in Jeopardy, and that businesses and organizations may now hire to perform legions of computing tasks with a speed and comprehensiveness that is beyond the ability of even the most intelligent human team. “Cognitive systems like Watson super-charge our human ability to think through complex problems,” the FTI 2018 Tech Trends report states.

Boosting critical thinking skills

This powerful “intelligence” can be used to boost eLearning in countless ways. Machine learning, natural language processing, and other aspects of AI are already taking eLearning in new directions. Cognitive computing applies many of the same technologies but, rather than automating tasks or offering answers, a cognitive computing system aids the humans in thinking through the problem and coming up with their own solutions.

For example, an AI-based medical application might search a vast database of symptoms and come up with a diagnosis. It might be correct; it might not. Much about AI is inscrutable; the algorithms don’t explain their results, and the humans cannot ask for an explanation.

In contrast, a cognitive computing system might access the same databases of information and make suggestions; a cognitive system can even mimic reasoning and problem-solving to “talk” a doctor or medical team through a problem. The quick access to reams of information also helps the team make better decisions.

In short, the cognitive computing system helps the human team perform better—it does not make decisions or take actions based on its own choices.

This key difference is what points to cognitive computing systems as a revolutionary development in performance support tools and in eLearning. AI based on cognitive computing will strengthen learners’ critical thinking and problem-solving skills while teaching them how to apply what they’re learning. It’s also an antidote to the worry that the robots are coming to take our jobs.

How cognitive computing can super-charge performance support

Proponents and developers of cognitive computing systems claim that they can “understand our intentions,” according to the FTI report. Harnessing this ability in eLearning and performance support could mean improvements in:

  • Curation: The cognitive computing system could quickly guide an employee to the most current and relevant information in a vast array of curated and vetted content.
  • Targeting: The cognitive computing system can figure out, based on queries and responses a learner enters, what that person knows and what will help her solve her current dilemma or learn a skill that she’s missing. The intelligent system can then immediately deliver the precise combination of information and assistance to guide the learner to the next level.
  • Personalization: Based on an individual’s job, the current task before him, and his past learning engagement and performance, the intelligent system can deliver just-in-time assistance in a format that the employee prefers.
  • Chats and quizzes: Multiple-choice questions can become an artifact of history; an intelligent chat application can ask learners to answer thoughtful questions and help them think through scenarios that are likely to arise on the job, allowing them to try out different approaches in a safe environment. In this way, the eLearning serves as a coach—and becomes a mentor as those learners begin to apply their new skills and knowledge on the job.

By helping employees as they learn, master, and apply information, cognitive computing systems allow the learners to test solutions, ask questions, and assimilate the cognitive system’s suggestions. Instantaneous access to far more information than they could find or remember on their own provides additional support. Far from taking over employees’ jobs, cognitive computing systems show how AI can enhance performance and help employees excel.