Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Students and Faculty Must Work Across Disciplines to Meet Real-World Challenges

Editor's note: this post is by Jim Spohrer, director, IBM University Programs Worldwide and originally appeared on the IBM Research News blog

Working with academia has been a longtime passion of mine, and for the last three years, my full-time job at IBM. In this role, I am often asked to offer advice, from an industry vantage point, on what needs to change in order to improve university and college education. 

After much thought and discussion with academics and industry practitioners, I have distilled my advice to four points:

1. Help students be transdisciplinary. Knowledge workers today need a combination of skills that span technology, business, and social sciences. This requires those three distinct parts of a university to work together. 

Transdisciplinarity is not just working with someone who is expert in another area (interdisciplinary). In a paper I wrote with the University of Phoenix and the Institute of the Future, we defined this for students as “being equipped to think through different disciplinary approaches, themselves.” You can read the paper, here.

2. Students should work on real-world challenges. Design capstoneand other team-oriented projects that require students of engineering, business, social sciences, humanities, and other subjects to work together on something that solves a real problem.

For example, we have held social media project competitions with the Hult International Business School that have led to important real-worldexperiences for the MBA students – and valuable insights on the students’ impressions and social media experiences on the IBM sites and blogs. 

The students gave recommendations, such as developing clearer linkage and integration between all social media channels in a more holistic approach to social media, and implementing promotions like a social media-based IBM teen entrepreneur competition. 

They also came up with fascinating ways to integrate IBM’s social media presence in new ways, such as using gamification, and guerilla marketing technqiues; creating an external IBM product support forum through Facebook; and encouraging employees to evangelize the brand messages. 

The winning teams will be announced on the IBM Smarter Planet blog, the IBM People for a Smarter Planet Facebook page, and the IBM profile onLinkedIn next week. 

And we also started the SmartPitch Challenge at the City University of New York (now in its tenth year!) The project challenges students to start their own businesses. Winning student teams are mentored by IBMers and public sector representatives. This year’s SmartPitch is already underway, but you can read about past finalists such as CashIn and Cosiety, here.

3. Find better ways to encourage faculty to reach across these disciplines. Today’s rewards (tenure, grants, and increased salaries) are optimized in the other direction. But institutions with discipline-oriented departments that seek rigor and ensure depth, combined with research centers that tackle real-world challenges can provide ample opportunities to motivate faculty. 

IBM currently works with universities such as the San Jose State College of Business’s Gary J. Sbona Honors Program on student “final projects,”where IBMers are assigned as business mentors in a real IBM project.Some of these projects have included working on IBM acquisition integration.

In an example from 2010, San Jose State University Computer Sciencestudents are working with IBM Research – Almaden on a project calledSPLASH (Smarter Planet Platform for Analysis and Simulation of Health).

4. Provide faculty and students more opportunities to connect locally and globally. Every student needs the experience of partnering with local businesses, government, and nonprofits to improve regional innovation ecosystems and quality of life. And they also need the experience of a semester abroad to be more-informed global citizens. 

The increased flexibility in the university curricula is giving the students more opportunities to take international courses, and enhance their personal and professional development by exploring new cultures. And now, IBM has a recruiting initiative called International Student, that's targeting the students who are studying abroad, and identifying opportunities for them in their home countries.

At IBM, our vision is that individuals and institutions are on a journey of increasing capabilities – and creating college graduates who are transdisciplinary problem solvers, and informed global citizens. Let’s reward faculty and students for depth and breadth of knowledge.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Inside the lab: the atomic-scale memory team at Almaden

Today, researchers at Almaden were featured prominently in the media, for their atomic-scale memory discovery. By starting at the very end of data density - single atoms - IBM physicists and scientists in San Jose succeeded in reliably storing one bit of magnetic information at a low temperature in just 12 atoms. Today's hard drives use about 1 million atoms to store the same bit. 

This is a huge breakthrough in understanding how to build smaller, faster, and more energy-efficient devices ranging from business-class servers to cell phones and laptops. 

The team here at Almaden is a unique one - with outside-of-work interests such as winemaking, cross country skiing, photography and drawing, the 5 of them are usually found in their soon-to-be-expanded lab, listening to Pink Floyd, tinkering with the Nobel-prize winning scanning tunneling microscope (complete with the infamous Arizona iced tea aluminum can that "serves a very distinct purpose" - harnessing loose wires) and jotting down inspirational quotes to post around the lab, like the one above: "This could all be real!"

IBM researcher Susanne Baumann was the artist behind this representation of their work, which in the bottom starburst depicts today's discovery. Susanne completed her Master's in physics from the University of Basel in Switzerland and is currently pursuing her Ph.D. there. Seeing Don Eigler's atom manipulation images in her textbooks growing up, she became curious about atoms - the thing that makes up all the matter that surrounds us - and wanted to learn more. She took a position with the team at IBM Research - Almaden over a year ago, and is instrumental in navigating the STM for various experiments, including the one that concluded in this breakthrough discovery.

You can find more information in our press kit and at The IBM press release is here

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Social Business Research at Almaden

Ten years ago there was a significant shift in the way people interacted with each other: the web came to the workplace and became a serious business tool for organizations in industries of every kind. The evolution continues with the coming of age of Social Business as social computing, analytics, policies, governance and cultures are integrated into enterprise design and organizations are focused on socially-enabling business processes.

Jeff Pierce, IBM Research - Almaden
Mobile Computing Research Lead
In a recent media event at IBM Research - Almaden focused on how Social Business is helping organizations around the world embrace a new culture of transparency and collaboration, IBM GM for Social Business Alistair Rennie spoke to about 6 reporters and 4 analysts about IBM's strategy and IBM mobile computing research lead Jeff Pierce led a discussion about user studies and mobile devices in the Social Business world.

The attendees had access to a number of mobile/social Research demonstrations, including the crowdsourcing mobile phone app CreekWatch, IBM Connections and a few Twitter analytics projects developed out of the Social Media Analytics & Engagement area of IBM Research - Almaden. Much of the research is developed out of behavioral studies - including the interesting result that even as early as 2007 some users were already managing their activities across an average of 6 devices - many of which were published in the last 3 years:

Smart Phone Use by Non-Mobile Business Users
Presented at Mobile HCI 2011

Presented at Mobile HCI 2011

IBM Research Report

IBM Research Report
Also! ReadWriteWeb's article "IBM Rethinking Mobile Email" from December 2011

Presented at CHI 2008

Following the event, influential Forbes blogger Haydn Shaughnessy reported on the evolution of social media to social business highlighting IBM's embrace of social technologies across the organization. The article discusses IBM's evolution into a social business and cites IBM as a category leader in social software. 

Jennifer Okimoto, Social Business Consultant from IBM's Global Business Services division, and speaker at this event, shared her thoughts on "Social Business Game Changers," which include behaviors, skills and attitudes: 

You can learn more about IBM's Social Business here

Friday, December 2, 2011

IBM storage gets more Hollywood hardware

In October, we announced that IBM's Linear Tape File Storage project earned a spot at the Emmy Award Ceremony in Hollywood, where the team received a golden statuette for "improving the ability of media companies to capture, manage and exploit content in digital form, fundamentally changing the way that audio and video content is manager and stored" (as stated by the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences).

Since then, IBM was awarded the HPA Engineering Excellence Award, presented by the 
Hollywood Post Alliance (HPA) for the invention of the Linear Tape File System, providing "a simple, cost efficient way to access and manage massive archives of data and digital assets." Arnon Amir, an Almaden researcher, received the award on behalf of IBM at the ceremony, at the Skirball
Cultural Center, Los Angeles.

Arnon shared some thoughts about the work he's done with his team to bring LTFS to this level of excellence. 

IBM has been working, for a number of years, on developing innovative storage solutions for the M&E 
market. LTFS is a prime example of IBM's ability to think out-of-the-box, develop a new technology and work with our partners and customers to lead a transformation through the industry. This collaboration, across multiple geographies, markets and technologies, demonstrates IBM's global leadership in storage systems.

When we started, the team was very small, however we only had a couple of shared tape drives in our lab to work with. One of core LTFS developers, Lucas Villa Real, worked remotely from IBM Brazil.  We set for him a webcam in our lab, showing the front of the tape drive 24 hours a day. Looking at the live video he could see the tape drive loading and unloading the tape as he tested his software. This must have been one of the most boring live videos ever streamed. :-) 

Later on, as the technology was hardened and transferred to product, the development team grew and span developers at multiple IBM locations Asia, Europe and America, with plenty of tape drives at all locations.

Seeing LTFS forming up from an idea to a product, now being adopted by many of our partners and customers in such a short time is truly fascinating. It is a great privilege to work with our excellent teams worldwide and to collaborate with so many IBM partners and customers. I feel very fortunate to have a part in this project.

IBM was also recognized as a Visionary M&E Company at this year's Storage Vision Conference (held in conjunction with the CES show). Also, December's issue of Storage Magazine Online listed LTFS as one of the six hot storage technologies for 2012, and was featured in Datamation's, "How Open Source Could Drive a Tape Storage Comeback" article. 

More coverage and analyst reviews: 

Computer Technology Review: LTO-5 and LTFS: Shaking the Pillars of Heaven
Backup Central: LTFS: Crazy Like a Fox

Friday, November 18, 2011

Dave Ferrucci on Watson: How it all began and what's next

In his first west coast appearance, the IBM Watson creator gave a talk at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, CA, followed by an exhibition Jeopardy! match between Watson and two brave volunteers with comedic host, IBMer Eric Brown. 

Computer History Museum
president John Hollar
In front of what Computer History Museum president John Hollar called "the largest crowd for a Revolutionaries lecture" that he's ever seen, IBM Watson principle investigator Dave Ferrucci sat with Financial Times' Richard Waters on November 15th for a conversation about "A Computer Called Watson." To the audience of about 450 Silicon Valley techies, influencers, teenagers and inspired engineers, Dave kicked off the conversation by explaining how Watson came about; and it began with the notion of natural language processing, namely, contextual aspects of language.

"At our house, I'd always call the kids down to see something 'interesting' that I'd done - some type of experiment or science-related thing," Dave said. "After enough of these demonstrations, my daughter started to associate the word 'interesting' with 'boring' - so there's a little about language context."

IBM Watson principle investigator David Ferrucci (left)
with Financial Times' Richard Waters
It turns out Dave was headed toward a career in medicine and was pursuing an M.D. rather than a Ph.D. But the biology major quickly developed a fascination with artificial intelligence, and a passion for programming. "I thought it was incredible that you could tell the computer what to do - and that it would do it," he said.

After obtaining his BS in biology from Manhattan College, he pursued computer science with an emphasis in knowledge representation and reasoning at Renesslaer Polytechnic Institute, completing his Ph.D. in 1994.

Since joining IBM in 1995, Dave has contributed largely to the Research function as a computer scientist. But in 2007, when IBM executive Charles Lickel challenged Dave and his team to revolutionize Deep QA and put an IBM computer against Jeopardy!'s human champions, he was off to the races.

"I had to get funding," Dave explains. "I told the executives I could do this in 3-5 years. I kind of just guessed."

The executives bought it, and Dave had a huge task ahead. By assembling a team of eventually 28 researchers in the areas of natural language processing, software architecture, information retrieval, machine learning and knowledge representation and reasoning, Dave created Watson - a computer system, that, using a combination of sophisticated hardware and software, could understand natural language and deliver a single, precise answer with confidence and evidence for its decision.

At the end of the conversation, Dave told the crowd about Watson's new job in the medical field: "We want Watson to enable better judgement by humans in decision-making, whether it be in medicine, law, finance or services," Dave said. "While the human is the ultimate decision-maker, Watson will provide evidence and confidence by scouring millions of sources of related information in a short amount of time."

GigaOm's Stacey Higginbotham takes on IBM's Watson
and Sierra Ventures' Robert Walker in an exhibition match

In an exhibition Jeopardy! game following the talk, IBM's Eric Brown played host to GigaOm's Stacey Higginbotham, Sierra Ventures' Robert Walker, and "oh yeah, our third contestant, Watson, from Yorktown Heights, New York, built by a few computer scientists," an introduction met with laughter that would continue throughout the game.

The humans playfully 'teamed' up against the computer,
high-fiving and fist bumping on each correct answer
The animated human contestants instantly won over the crowd after trailing Watson through the first part of the game. In fact, when Stacey buzzed in with the first correct question for the humans, the crowd went wild.

The night continued in that way, and the human contestants even found themselves getting answers from the crowd, to which host Eric Brown responded: "Watson can't hear you, so humans have an advantage!" As it turned out, the trick was buzzing in before Watson - hard to do unless you're a seasoned Jeopardy! vet like Ken Jennings or Brad Rutter.

As the exciting match wound down, and all three contestants answered the Final Jeopardy! question correctly, Watson came away with the win, but left the auditorium with tremendous enthusiasm for this computer and its impact on the future of technology.

Check back here for a video clip of this event and the IBM Research news blog for more news about Watson.

More from the event:

Pre-game (post-practice game) thoughts from contestants*:

*apologies for the incorrect orientation

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Meet Almaden's Master Inventors

Each year, IBM selects a new field of Master Inventors as one way of recognizing IBMers who have mastered the patent process, provided broad mentoring, added value to IBM's portfolio, and demonstrated sustained innovation leadership and service. Once selected, a Master Inventor is expected to apply his or her mastery of patent knowledge by actively serving as a:

*leader in the invention community
*mentor to a broad community of inventors
*resource to Intellectual Property Legal office

This year, IBM Research has named forty-nine Master Inventors from its global community of researchers, including five from Almaden. Jim Hafner, Ray Strong, Alshakim Nelson, Tanveer Syeda-Mahmood and Tyrone Grandison, shared some thoughts about their motivations, their inspirations, and what it means to be part of an inventor community that has led the world in patents for 18 years.

Jim's current job is to "do whatever is needed for my project to succeed," but is known around IBM as a stellar mathematician in the Storage Systems department. Ever enthusiastic about the daily challenges - and opportunities to master stubborn ones - Jim credits QBIC (query by image processing) as the project he learned the most from, while his most inventive burst came from working on advanced RAID technologies.

By 6th grade, Jim knew that he was born to be a mathematician -- "it's in my genes," he says. "But I trained for and pursued an academic career for 6 years before coming to IBM." While he says he never aimed for IBM Research, the opportunity came up and "it was irresistible."

Thoughts from Jim on patent leadership and the freedom to explore:

It's exciting working for a corporation (or any institution) that regards invention, innovation and creativity as highly as IBM does. IBM supports the patent process and acknowledges special contributions to that process in order to keep the innovation train moving forward. As a company it needs new ideas to stay competitive.  But I think IBM looks beyond just its own profit margins in its vision.  From the old e-business initiatives to the current Smarter Planet initiative, it's about setting the agenda for world wide growth, improving the lives of people across the globe. That vision takes invention, innovation and creativity.  It's good to be a part of this; to ride this train. 

Favorite hobby: running and scuba diving, both physically challenging but with great rewards.

Ray Strong is a Services Research participant in three projects that involve "designing the future of work; transforming service cost cases into service delivery staffing plans; and providing a new approach to cost forecasting and predictive cost models for services." Driven by anticipation for discovering new ways to have an impact on the business, Ray is also a natural when it comes to math and science. "Growing up, I appreciated the fact that there were often objectively correct answers," he says. "And I enjoyed finding new ways to get at them. In grade school, I missed the coverage of 'subtraction,' so I invented my own (superior) method."

His favorite IBM project so far was a services-based solution offering called Impact of Future Technology, in which he served as the Research Technical Lead.

Ray shares with us his thoughts on invention:

Research means asking questions beyond those required to find good engineering solutions to problems. Almaden houses an outstanding group of research scientists and engineers who have the fun of inventing new stuff that can actually be used by the company. The invention disclosure process provides an early way to record these things and protect IBM's freedom of action at the same time. Our successful combination of science and business is an excellent motivator. What could be better than working with other enthusiastic inventors to explore areas where it is possible to have a big effect and being paid to do it?

Favorite hobby: Off trail mountain hiking and exploring.

Alshakim Nelson, a research chemist in the advanced organic materials group gets to work on technology at a fundamental scientific level, like working on magnetic particles with the tape storage group at Almaden.

Favorite hobby: Spending time with my daughter.

Tanveer Syeda-Mahmood has a very dynamic role as a manager in Almaden's computer science department - her job typically begins with an idea and typically ends with closing a deal. In between, she leads a team of researchers, develops algorithms, codes and presents. When asked what makes her excited to get out of bed and go to work in the morning, she answered, "The possibility of advancing the state-of-the-art technologies and developments in my field, building systems that others can use and change their ways of practicing medicine and freedom of action."

That doesn't stray too far from her passion for math and science that began as a child as well: "I was interested in the possibility of solving hard problems and excited about the discovery of new concepts and theories," Tanveer said. "I was inspired by famous scientists as role models."

The lead researcher behind AALIM, she credits that as her favorite project at IBM. "Motivated by personal incident, I conceived AALIM as a diagnostic aid to clinicians to help in their decision making," she said. "Seeing it used by clinicians around the world is still my dream."

Favorite hobby: Watching movies. 

Tyrone Grandison is currently the Program Manager for IBM's Core Healthcare Services, but in a previous role at IBM Research developed the SoundIndex project for the British Broadcasting Corporation - his favorite project to date.

Asked why he pursued math and science in his youth, Tyrone answered, "I loved the elegance and simplicity of Mathematics, which could be used to model everything around me and in my estimation is the universal language that helps us get a better handle on the world."

As a strong contributer to the success of IBM IP, I asked Tyrone what it meant to him that IBM continuously breaks the worldwide record for patents in a year.

To me, it signifies IBM's commitment to innovation and its recognition of the importance of research in charting the future of the business. It also highlights the fact that IBM has an amazing collection of intelligent, creative and savvy employees who have the freedom to "dream" and make those dreams reality. IBM's patent leadership, worldwide for the past 18 years, is a testament to the corporation's consistent focus on long-term impact; both on society and business. Leadership over such a long period is only possible if innovation and impact are a part of one's DNA.

Personally, intellectual curiosity is the primary driving force behind my activities. The freedom to tackle the hard problems and invent the future is the main reason I am an IBMer. The opportunity to have a positive impact on the world and influence communities, both scientific and commercial, is one that would be hard to have anywhere else.

Favorite hobby: Writing poetry and photography.

Congratulations to Almaden's new class of Master Inventors.

Monday, October 31, 2011