Let’s Build a Smarter Planet – Part I

This is the abridged transcript of a talk I gave at the University of Birmingham earlier this month. The talk was aimed at graduates and tried to explain why working at a company like IBM is about more than just IT. Even though it’s abridged, with imbedded videos and graphics it’s still pretty long so I’ve split it into four parts corresponding to the sections of the talk which were:

  1. What is IBM (and why is it building a smarter planet)?
  2. What do I do at IBM?
  3. What might you do at IBM?
  4. Why does IBM need people like you?

Here’s Part I.

Hello everyone, my name is Peter Cripps. I work for IBM as a software architect and I’m here today to talk to you about how IBM is building a smarter planet, the role we play as IBM’ers in doing that and what opportunities there are for people like you to become involved.

Before we get going let me ask you a few questions:

  • Who’s used any IBM software in the last week?
  • How about this year?
  • How about ever?

Okay, that’s sort of what I expected the answer would be. I ask this question a lot when I speak to people like you and I always get a similar response. So why is it I wonder that a company like IBM, actually the fifth largest information technology company by revenue in 2012, ahead of Microsoft, Google and Dell and the second largest software company in the world, one behind Microsoft, makes products that no one thinks they use?

Well, let me tell you; I can almost guarantee that most, if not all of you, will have used some IBM software over the past month or so. If you have drawn money out from a bank, browsed and bought something from an internet store, bought a plane ticket or interacted with one of the many government departments which are now online you have unknowingly used some IBM software.

IBM software might not be the sexy stuff you use on you mobile phone or laptop (though we do some of that as well) but is actually part of the infrastructure of many of the worlds IT systems. It’s like the plumbing in your house, you don’t necessarily see it but you surely would miss it if it wasn’t there.
So, by the end of this talk, I hope you’ll understand a bit more about what IBM does and that I will have piqued your interest a little to maybe consider IBM when you are looking for a job. One area I’d particularly like to explore is how IBM has a “mission” to build a smarter planet. So, let’s start with this video.

Now, I don’t know if, while you were watching that video, you were reminded of the film Minority Report directed by Steven Spielberg and based on the short story by Philip K Dick written in 1956?

The film’s central theme is the question of free will versus determinism. It examines whether free will can exist if the future is set and known in advance. Other themes include the role of preventive government in protecting its citizenry, the role of media in a future state where electronic advancements make its presence nearly boundless.

There can be little doubt that computers, and more specifically software, is now so intertwined in our lives our planet could not exist in its present form without it. Here’s a nice quote from Grady Booch, Chief Scientist and IBM Fellow, which I really like:

Software is the invisible thread and hardware is the loom on which computing weaves its fabric, a fabric that we have now draped across all of life.

This of course is for better or worse which is the fourth theme I’d like to cover with you today because I believe it’s an incredibly important one which will probably affect you more than me as you go through your working life.

I’d like to start by talking about what we mean by a smarter planet and how IBM is going about building one. First of all though let me give you a potted history of IBM just so you have a bit of background about how it has got to where it is today and why building a smarter planet is so important to it.In 1911 the American entrepreneur Charles Flint who had interests in a number of companies including ship building, munitions and weighing machines bought out Herman Hollerith’s Tabulating Machine Company and merged several of his companies together to form the Computing-Tabulating-Recording Company, or C-T-R, headquartered in New York. By 1914 the company was struggling so Flint hired Thomas Watson Sr (remember that name, it will turn up again a little later) to run the company. Over the following decade, Watson forged the disparate pieces of C-T-R into a unified company with a strong culture. He focused resources on the tabulating machine business, foreseeing that information technology had an ever-expanding future and literally creating the information industry. Watson also began expanding overseas—beyond the UK, Canada and Germany where its products were already sold—taking tiny C-T-R global. By 1924, he renamed C-T-R with the more expansive name of International Business Machines or IBM.

Fast forward to 2011, IBM’s 100th birthday and it is now a $100 billion turnover company with over 400,000 employees worldwide operating in over 170 countries. Today IBM UK has around 20,000 employees, bringing innovative solutions to a diverse client base to help solve some of their toughest business challenges.

In order to provide such innovation to its clients it invests a huge amount in research and development, $75 billion since the turn of the century. Notice that is ‘R’ and ‘D’, not just ‘D’ which is what many companies ascribe to this term. IBM has 12 research labs around the world including a smarter cities lab in Dublin, Ireland.Although IBM is currently the second largest software company in the world software actually makes up less than half of IBM’s revenue. Computer hardware, strangely enough what many people still think IBM as being all about, actually accounts for less than one sixth of IBM’s revenue. Services, a business that IBM didn’t even have when I joined the company in 1987, takes the second largest share!

As further proof of the way IBM seeks to drive innovation in the industry here’s another interesting statistic. It took IBM 53 years to receive it’s first 5000 US patents. It now regularly exceeds that number every year. The way it does that is through the innovation and creativity of its people.

Here are a few of the people you may have heard of and the innovations they introduced.

The above were all recipients of the Turing Prize (along with three other IBM’ers). In addition physicists Gerd K. Binnig and Heinrich Rohrer were awarded a Nobel Prize in Physics in 1986 for the scanning tunneling microscope (STM) which was invented 1981. The invention permitted scientists to obtain previously unseen images of silicon, nickel, oxygen, carbon and other atoms. Shown here is IBM etched in single carbon atoms using the STM.58a6e-ibmstmimageThis is just one of five Nobel prizes IBM has been awarded. IBM Research has grown from a small lab on the campus of a major university to the largest industrial research organisation in the world. A global body of 3000 scientists now collaborates with academics in universities around the globe, at the boundaries of information technology.

Some of IBM’s achievements extend beyond it’s own boundaries. Here are two notable people who have built their own global enterprises based on ideas or innovations from within IBM.f41fb-billandlarry
After negotiations with Digital Research failed, IBM awarded a contract to Bill Gates fledgling Microsoft in November 1980 to provide a version of the CP/M OS, which was set to be used in the upcoming IBM Personal Computer (IBM PC).Larry Ellison founded Oracle in 1977 on the back of the pioneering work done on relational databases by Ted Codd of IBM.
So, that’s a little bit about IBM the company what about the smarter planet it’s trying to build?2f881-smarterplanet

This is the famous picture of earth rising above the moons horizon taken in 1968 by the Apollo 10 astronauts on the last test mission to the moon before the first moon landing 7 months later. Imagine how frustrating that was, to have got so close but not to have actually set foot on the moon?

By the way, whilst talking about the moon and Apollo did you know that IBM was instrumental in getting a man to the moon? Not only in making the computers for the mission control engineers on the ground but also some of the on-board avionics hardware and software as well. But I digress, back to a smarter planet.

When considering what we mean by a smarter planet we talk about it in terms of the so called “three I’s”:

  • Instrumented: We have the ability to measure, sense and see the exact condition of everything. We now have computers and smart sensors pretty much everywhere. Its estimated there are 800 quintillion transistors on the planet (which is around 100 billion for every person alive).
  • Interconnected: People, systems and objects can communicate and interact with each other in entirely new ways.
  • Intelligent: We can respond to changes quickly and accurately, and get better results by predicting and optimizing for future events.

So how does this work in practice? Here’s an example from the field of healthcare. New born babies, some born before 26 weeks, are tethered to a host of medical devices that continuously measure heart rate, respiration and other vitals – that generate minute-by-minute readings of their fragile condition.  Data is coming out of those machines at a rate of a thousand readings per second and yet nurses typically take a single reading every 30 or 60 minutes! Not only that but the data is rarely stored for more than 24 hours meaning that insights into early detection of conditions like sepsis cannot be done. In 2009 IBM instigated a first of a kind (FOAK) system called ‘Artemis’ that  is capable of processing 1256 readings a second it currently receives per patient, and has the potential to provide real-time analysis to help clinicians to predict more quickly potential adverse changes in an infant’s condition.

Here’s another example of a great innovation from IBM which we are just beginning to exploit in new and powerful ways.

IBM’s computer, code-named “Watson” (remember him) leverages leading-edge Question-Answering technology, allowing the computer to process and understand natural language. It incorporates massively parallel analytical capabilities to emulate the human mind’s ability to understand the actual meaning behind words, distinguish between relevant and irrelevant content, and ultimately, demonstrate confidence to deliver precise final answers. In February of 2011, Watson made history by not only being the first computer to compete against humans on the US television quiz show, Jeopardy!, but by achieving a landslide win over prior champions Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter. The questions on this show are full of subtlety, puns and wordplay—the sorts of things that delight humans but choke computers. “What is The Black Death of a Salesman?” is the correct response to the Jeopardy! clue, “Colorful fourteenth century plague that became a hit play by Arthur Miller.”

So what is so clever about a computer winning a quiz show…?

We’re only just at the beginning of what we can do with exploiting all of the data that we are creating. A smarter planet is one that makes sense of all this data to improve all of our lives.

Part II of this talk is here.

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