Techland Interview: How IBM Is (Still) Changing the Way We Live

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Nowadays, we’re used to hearing about technology companies appearing and disappearing in the blink of an eye, where the competitive dogma of the business world has many fighting for scraps just to stay alive.

Too often, it’s because these fat cow companies tend to rest on their laurels, chasing quick dollars after building scale (like MySpace) or refusing to adapt to a shifting landscape for their customers (like Blockbuster).

All of which makes what IBM’s been able to do up to this, the technology company’s 100th anniversary, all the more impressive. From punch cards that enabled social security, to the magnetic strips you see on credit cards, to singularity-egging supercomputers with the ability to beat humankind’s brightest at their own game, IBM’s consistently been at the forefront of what’s next, now for an entire century.

(MORE: Big Blues Turns 100: IBM’s Anniversary is One to Celebrate)

I spoke with Dr. Bernie Meyerson, IBM’s Vice President of Innovation, about what sort of things Big Blue has in store for our collective futures, and how exactly they’ve been able to sustain lasting success.

Techland: In the past, you’ve stated that good innovation is something that “blows people’s socks off.” What kind of technologies are you guys working on for the near future that’ll have that sort of effect on us?

Meyerson: If you want to blow people’s socks off, you have to do something that does the seemingly impossible while making it look easy.

One of the things IBM’s been working on is Watson, our computer that defeated two all time Jeopardy! champions handily. We called it a “grand challenge,” or a way to prove you can do something that everybody else looked at and just said, “Nah.”

“Data analytics” [what Watson does] is something we’ve been building up spectacular capacity for. We’ve invested $14 to $15 billion internally and in acquiring companies to give us a second-to-none capability. You combine the ability to analyze data with the ability of a Watson-like device to correlate unstructured data, and what you have is an opportunity of a lifetime to use it in a way that could be spectacular for societies.

(MORE: 10 Questions with IBM’s Watson)

Once you’ve done that, imagine the implications if you can work with natural language and take unstructured data (like the sort of things a doctor writes on a piece of paper when he makes a diagnosis). What if you can take all the old medical records on the planet, and take that highly unstructured data and tap into it?

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