Ginni Rometty, chief executive officer and chairman of International Business Machines Corp. (NYSE: IBM), says the company’s bets are on machines with the ability to learn will help usher in the next wave of computing.

A doctor can now interact with machines “almost like he’s talking with a colleague,” Rometty said Tuesday at the Fortune Most Powerful Women conference. The result is the next chapter of technology, going beyond the mainframes and personal computers of earlier generations. “You and I, in our lifetimes, this will be the third era of computing,” she said.

IBM has been trying to replicate brain processes in its labs and is developing machines that can give advice in finance and medicine. The high-powered Watson computer, which beat humans on the “Jeopardy!” quiz show last year, is now in production for use in oncology.

“So, in a nutshell, you and I in our lifetimes, this would be the third era of computing,” Rometty said, based on a transcript provided by Fortune.

“The first is machines that just tabulated and counted.

“The second is programs, get this, do that – everything you guys – everything we use today to get machines to do it faster.

“The third era is because in this world of huge and big data, you won’t be able to program machines – you’ll never be able to program them for everything that they should know, and data will be uncertain out there.

“These machines will have to learn.

“They will have to be able to learn what is right, what is wrong, what are the patterns. They learn. That is cognitive, a machine that learns.

“These eras, by the way, they’re 20, 30, 50 years each. So, this isn’t like it’s here this week, but this machine, Watson, was the first one we saw. I shouldn’t even call it a machine.

“What does it do? It’s capable of discovering learning.”

IBM tries to anticipate long-term trends, like cognitive computing, that can help the company create nearer-term markets, Rometty said. For example, by collecting and analyzing large amounts of data, IBM has discovered an opportunity to serve chief marketing officers who need insight on their customers, she said.

“With really smart people, they try things, they experiment,” Rometty said. “One of the most valuable things people can do in reinvention is make markets. Test them, fail fast, and move on.”

Xerox Corp. CEO Ursula Burns, who also spoke at the conference, said she shares that philosophy.

A plaque on her door reads, “Sooner, rather than perfect,” Burns said.

Rometty assumed the chairman’s role at IBM effective Oct. 1, replacing Sam Palmisano, who retired. Sher assumed the CEO role on Jan. 1 of this year.

Fortune named Rometty as the No. 1 most powerful woman in its latest list.

IBM employs some 10,000 people across North Carolina.

[IBM ARCHIVE: Check out a decade of IBM stories as reported in WRAL Tech Wire.]

(Bloomberg news contributed to his report.)