IBM chief Ginni Rometty is betting on a cognitive world

Ginni Rometty wants to capture the business world with cognitive computing—a concept that she believes will assume more importance than even artificial intelligence


Ginni Rometty, chairman, president and CEO of IBM. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint
Ginni Rometty, chairman, president and CEO of IBM. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint

If Google Inc. and Facebook Inc. dominate the online space with their machine learning, deep learning and suite of artificial intelligence (AI) technologies, International Business Machines Corp. (IBM) wants to go a step further and capture both the online and offline worlds with its cognitive computing platform.

Ginni Rometty, chairman, president and CEO of IBM, a company that has weathered many a disruption in the last 105 years, believes that cognitive will even score over AI in helping businesses improve their efficiency.

“Cognitive is much more than AI,” she insisted at an editors’ roundtable in Mumbai on the sidelines of the Nasscom Leadership Forum on Thursday.

“If you see a continuum of what you can achieve with technologies—it’s machine learning on the one end, next is AI and then cognitive,” said Rometty, likening cognitive to reasoning.

AI, according to her, helps make better decisions while machine learning helps decipher patterns. “If I were to look at a cardiogram, and see the blood vessels moving while trying to look for a blockage, I would view that more as AI. But if were to take all your electronic medical records, images and all data from Fitbit, etc.—every test that you have done—that is really cognitive because I’m reasoning over that data and dealing with a grey area. I’m making judgments and decisions,” Rometty said, explaining how IBM distinguishes between cognitive and AI.

Cognitive, for her, is not about replacing simple jobs. It is about “augmenting what you and I do”. Cognitive and cloud “are two sides of the same coin”.

“Mobility will have a lot to do with the reach of these technologies. So the cloud is making ubiquitous, mobility is giving you reach but cognitive is what gives you content,” Rometty said.

IBM has 50 cloud centres around the world including India. Today over 40% of IBM is around the cloud, big data, analytics, Watson, security and mobility, according to Rometty. “So the IBM we have reinvented over the years today is a cognitive solutions and cloud platform company,” said Rometty, who has worked with the company since 1981.

IBM is also betting big on blockchain, the underlying technology of crypto currencies like Bitcoin.

Rometty believes that “blockchain will do for trusted transactions what the internet did for information—make it ubiquitous and standard.” IBM is part of the open platform of blockchain called hyperledger and “a team of 50 people from IBM are donating codes to this”.

“We are now close to 400 projects on blockchain,” Rometty said, pointing out that even IBM’s global finance runs on blockchain.

India, insisted Rometty, is very important for IBM. “We have been here for many decades and are very committed to India. It is one of the only countries to have every bit of IBM represented—we do research and development, and we serve the local economy here. India, for instance, has done a fantastic job digitising. The next level is to make it cognitive,” she said.

“One of the biggest learnings is never to define yourself as a product. That applies to Indian companies too,” Rometty said, adding, “India is one of our 12 research centres in the world. Even some of our advanced research is done in India. We have done a lot of work here in making technologies accessible, in analytics and in blockchain too. The idea is to get research to the problem.”

IBM, according to Rometty, is simultaneously focusing on sectors like healthcare, education and risk and compliance among other areas to take advantage of the power of Watson—its supercomputing system that even beat Jeopardy players in 2011.

“In some countries, the cost of healthcare is very high. In others, the reach is not there. The timing is so right to improve it. Watson for health is oversubscribed in the world. I don’t believe we will own every area around cognitive. But we have made health an open platform... Next, we bought data. I think we have more data with secondary use rights than anyone in the world other than governments—300 million records. It is the foundation to change an industry,” Rometty said.

Another example of Watson’s use is in the risk and compliance sector which spends $270 billion per year. “We have been training Watson on regulations—how to understand an obligation, how to make a better underwriting decision,” Rometty said.

Watson has also become the information technology industry’s first augmented intelligence technology designed to power cognitive security operations centres (SOCs), according to IBM.

Rometty believes with “the essence of data in every job”, the word “new-collared” as opposed to “blue collared” is more appropriate.

When asked about the impact of technologies like AI and cognitive on jobs coupled with the threat to reduce H-1B visa workers in the US (Rometty is one of the 16 members in President Donald Trump’s advisory council), Rometty said, “As an advisor, we just give inputs. Every head of government I meet with is concerned about jobs. India, for instance, has its ‘Make in India’. So jobs are important to every country. I can only speak for IBM when we talk visas. We use them as they were intended to be used—to bridge short-term skills gaps. It is not our business model and a very small part of our workforce.”

She went on to add: “IBM operates in 170 countries. IBM is a company built on diversity, tolerance and inclusion—clients expect you to bring skills from anywhere in the world to solve their problems. We will continue to do that. The way to make progress in this world is to engage and provide solutions. In cases where there are dilemmas over the freedom of movement of people and security, there will always be a trade-off. There are ways to make the world safer and more secure.”

Cognitive computing and AI technologies can indeed provide a competitive edge to companies, according to analysts.

Research firm Forrester lists ‘cognitive computing’ as one of “The Top Emerging Technologies To Watch: 2017 To 2021”. On 29 August, Forrester noted that IBM “takes an enterprise-first, hybrid approach to the cloud platform market,” and “clients with complex hybrid cloud requirements demanding a mix of on-premise and public cloud services should consider IBM Cloud.”

Artificial intelligence is a top priority for both business and technology leaders, and organizations globally are aggressively launching pilots to explore possibilities, Sanchit Vir Gogia, chief analyst and CEO of Greyhound Research, acknowledges. He believes this trend has both a near-term and long-term impact on both the CIOs and their respective organizations.

“While the relatively well known AI systems include IBM’s Watson, IPSoft’s Amelia, Apple’s Siri, Microsoft’s Cortana and Google Assistant, our enquiries suggest that organizations are currently facing machine-learning limitations and inflexibility issues with most. IBM Watson is one of these systems where such limitations and issues have been reported—we have had our CIO customers share feedback that while IBM Watson does good justice to analytics and basic predictive modelling, Watson’s ML algorithms are very basic and they face struggles while running Big Data projects. A key question facing IBM and others is whether to sell (and charge for) AI as a stand-alone offering or sell it as part of a core product. Success of IBM Watson currently hinges on enterprise AI adoption which is currently in its early stages and (per Greyhound Research estimates) attracts less than 5% of the overall IT budget,” Gogia said. He added that while IBM is “well-poised to make a significant dent in the AI market, it needs to bring together its services, infrastructure and solutions capabilities to make Watson more relevant in today’s context. Else, players like Wipro’s Holmes and others will eat IBM’s lunch.”

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