The Cloud Punch
In a freewheeling conversation with Dataquest, IBM India Chairperson, Vanitha Narayanan, talks about the Big Blue’s cognitive cloud; and demystifies how Watson and quantum computing add more punch for the user
As the cloud rat race heats up in the tech industry, IBM is talking of cognitive technologies and how its cloud is intelligent and agile. So let’s begin with cognitive. What according to you are the key components of this cognitive era?
IBM’s tryst with AI goes back in time- almost 5 decades ago. Our scientists used to work on a language called LISP, so AI as a discipline is not new to IBM. Over the years computing power has grown in leaps, we have accumulated humongous amounts of data, and we have many path-breaking technologies from deep learning to analytics et al. Today it is all about a technology ecosystem. We are manifesting AI via Watson and augmenting lives in more ways than one - our cognitive play stitches together multiple technologies, yet thinks like a human and constantly improvises it. In 1956, if IBM had built a cognitive platform, it might have resembled a mainframe at that point of time. With all the capabilities that we have today, Cognitive is also morphing to the new normal-like Watson on a cloud. This has opened up new frontiers and hence available anywhere to anyone. It’s a platform to develop a technology ecosystem. If we go back in our history, the System 360 was probably the first core platform that fostered this ecosystem approach. There were people who did the networking for the mainframe, software for the mainframe and then we saw a whole lot of companies doing services for the mainframe. This was one ecosystem build up, but fast forward again to the 21st century, this ecosystem is going to look very different, because in those ecosystems you need to have synchronized relationships. There are multiple things - and that is why we call this a cognitive era.
Look at the programming era that lasted for 5 decades. We are taking Watson to the mainstream.
You are taking Watson’s intelligence and smartness to your customers with your cloud. How does it make a difference?
Our intent is to build systems to augment humans. We will be very transparent in ensuring that people know what ‘data’ trained the system and also when people bring customers, particularly in our case we have so many enterprise customers who are using the platform; they are going to get the value from the data.
So essentially my question is that how this change is going to be different than the previous changes that technology companies like IBM have facilitated and brought in? So, if you look at most of the prior technology trends, most of them relate to efficiency, productivity, and you were able to do more with higher computing capacity, more storage, and programming to a certain set of an outcome. They were programmed to a certain scenario and that we solved. For instance, “I want to run a campaign and that campaign is going to run on these metrics. I want to have these operational KPIs, I am going to program so that, I am able to get these KPIs delivered.” So now, the fundamental technological difference about cognitive is that you are building a system that will learn and that will pick up a pattern that we may not have picked up earlier. In that sense, we are directing and you are feeding the system and you are contextualizing it in many different domain centric ways.
Who would be some of the early adopters that you think would go in for this approach of technology?
We have seen this across sectors and we have seen this in different places. We clearly are seeing early adoption from startups and new companies. They are looking at these technologies because now for the first time probably in
the history of technology, you have access. So, innovative entrepreneur individuals who are digitally tech savvy are leveraging cognitive technology. Particularly if they see a compelling problem that they want to solve, they are able to adopt and embrace. They don’t have to worry about transformation. It’s not only in the development of the new product and solution but it is also in the distribution. Because now instead of the intermediate economy, you have distribution cost. So your initial capital cost and distribution cost has gone down. You have new ways of distributing, and maybe it’s a better way or alternate way to look at it or until you figure out.
Now that you said that Watson is sitting on IBM’s cloud, can you give a peek into innovation happening on the Watson out of India?
Overall if you look at innovation, we as a company, which has been in tech area for a long time, invention and innovation are sort of integral to how our labs and everything runs around that. One of the things that we track very diligently is patents. In 2016, India labs contributed over 650 patents overall. The patents were in the realm of our strategic areas like cloud, cognitive, security etc. So clearly, the innovation culture is alive and kicking.
IBM is also talking about quantum computing – can you demystify that for us, and what is it doing in your cloud?
In the larger computing world we live in a world of ones and zeros. But in the world of quantum computing, there is one, zero, or both. So the moment you do both, the possibilities become exponential. You have to have quantum chips; we have put them in the cloud. We made it available to the companies and research institutes globally and we have just commercialized it.
How competitive IBM cognitive cloud? Is it affordable?
It is today, and it will continue to be. There are multiple communities that are adopters. But let’s talk about two. One is a community of startups and SME’s that can today be ‘born in the cloud’. So, with a smart cognitive cloud they don’t have to migrate. If you are a small component manufacturer for instance, you can get ERP on the cloud, you can get everything on the cloud and you don’t have to worry about having an affordable person who is running servers. Particularly, when you the overall national push for digital payments, the push to GST and so on, this makes a lot of business and operational sense. So, now you also have these other trends in the country that is forcing everybody to move out of pockets of islands of the analog world. It’s no longer about choice. This is also a good way of saying that I am an auto part manufacturer, why do I need to go via an IT person - I am just going straight. Startups are very different in the IT adoption attitude.
One apprehension often cited is that the cloud, and a cloud packed with cognitive strengths, will hit jobs. In a country where we need to create more jobs, is this not a matter of concern?
Well, we are delivering our cognitive cloud it as an open ecosystem where hundreds or thousands of ecosystems partners who are providing their services or offerings can create many things. So, in that sense, you are not just going to have a few large companies creating all the jobs. You would see a lot more jobs created in a broader ecosystem.
Vanitha Narayanan Chairperson IBM India