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.
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?
The fact of the matter is Watson can. He can devolve meaning and figure out what those doctors meant. Once you do that, you have a phenomenal opportunity to then coordinate all of that information, and take it and deep mine it.
Mine it in what ways?
Well, take a look at a particular disease like diabetes. You take all the data available globally, you anonymize it to preserve privacy, but then you crawl through it and say, “Was there some spectacular improvement that was seen in some small number of cases where people tried one strategy versus another?”
And you mine out of that data for the absolute best conceivable treatment for a patient, potentially optimized by ethnicity (if that turns out to be a factor), or if certain people have a predilection to one treatment versus another.
How far in the future do you see this ability to tap into “unstructured data” as the norm?
Well, there’s a huge cultural barrier you must overcome. There are issues of privacy that you absolutely must address, but you’re certainly not talking about outside of the 5 to 10 year window. It is coming, and conceivably within this generation or the next decade.
What about outside of Watson? Are there any other kinds of innovations IBM’s working on that will change the way we live?
You’re familiar with the phrase “real time”? That sounds great, right? Let me give you an example of when “real time” isn’t so hot, like, say, you’re stuck in traffic. Fantastic, right?
Not really. The fact is “real time” isn’t good enough. Imagine for a minute that you could collect all the data for traffic flow in a city. Not by each car alone, but exactly how many cars are in what place, at what time, and how fast they’re going.
Say for example you have a snapshot of traffic flow, and then 20 minutes later on average there’s a massive tie up that occurs at one central location. On that information, you can actually go in and start to build models for the entire city, which in fact we did in places like Singapore and London.
When you see a traffic jam, you can jump in ahead of it and basically do things like limit the access to that intersection by slowing the lights down 2 or 3 percent as cars approach it.
That doesn’t sound like much, but there’s a critical point where flow becomes chaos. It’s a very interesting mathematical theory, where the conversion from smooth flow to chaos can occur over an incredibly narrow window. It’s not that you need to eliminate all the cars, you just need to back down a relatively modest amount and the traffic jam never happens.
Then think about doing that on a global scale, and how much of a difference you’d see in the economy and the ecology. Think how much fuel would be saved if you’re not sitting there idly staring at someone’s bumper.
Obviously, IBM’s ability to constantly reinvent itself and enjoy prolonged success is something other companies envy. What have you guys been able to do differently?
Honestly, it’s our culture for innovation. Cultures outlive individuals. Cultures outlive hardware. Cultures outlive software. If you have a culture where innovation is what’s going to drive the success of the company, and you defend it even in the face of the most disastrous economic results, it just sets a profoundly positive tone with your technical community. That culture’s existed here for literally a century.
But the thing is you can’t mess with it.
It can take 50 years to build that type of culture, but it can take only 50 hours to kill it.
You’ve said previously that innovation, especially during a downturn, is essential to a business’ survival. What did you mean?
I was interviewed on the fifth of March [in 2009], 2 days before the bottom of the crash. I was sitting there on the [trading] floor, watching everything come down, and people were asking, “What’s your position on this?”
The position was very simple: You have to innovate through downturns. If you stop innovating, you’re done. If you stop, you’re essentially committing yourself to the dust bin of history.
Take the Great Depression. It was realized that the United States absolutely needed some sort of social safety net. This led to the need, not the creation, of social security and the whole system behind it.
But at that time, the way you kept records was in a ledger. You took pencil and paper and wrote down something in a book. That is physically untenable as a way to handle something like the infrastructure of social security. It’s physically impossible.
IBM stepped up, and invented machines that were capable of tabulating and storing data on punch cards. All those mechanisms and machinery enabled social security. Without it, it couldn’t have happened. The ability to take data, sort that data, store that data, and use it for purposes that you intended, like discovering where people were and making sure you could access them – all of that was made possible by IBM’s inventions.
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