Posts Tagged ‘innovation’
While I was out trying to grok all things SXSW Interactive these past several days, IBM continued with its efforts to put IBM Watson to work for the betterment of mankind by turning to the next generation of brilliant young minds to help figure out where Watson should work next.
Imagine a Watson-powered system that could uncover data-driven insights to help medical professionals identify those who may be suffering silently from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Imagine a Watson that could provide lawyers with faster research capabilities to improve their cases.
Imagine a Watson that could help businesses hire the best talent in the job market.
This is the magnitude of ideas sparked by more than 100 University of Southern California students who gathered recently to compete in the IBM Watson Academic Case Competition.
A debut on the West Coast, the Case Competition put USC students in the spotlight to create business plans for applying Watson to pressing business and societal challenges — and IBM business leaders were present and listening carefully.
IBM: Partnering To Learn
IBM partners with thousands of universities to offer curricula, internships and hands-on experiences to help students learn first hand about new technologies in the fields of Big Data, analytics and cognitive computing.
The company is at the forefront of creating a new workforce of Big Data trained professionals, from IBM’s collaboration with Cleveland Clinic, which provides Watson as a collaborative learning tool for medical students, to its public-private partnership with the New York City Department of Education and the City University of New York to create the Pathways in Technology Early College High School program (P-TECH), which allows students to participate in a six year science and technology program and graduate with an associates degree for free in computer science or engineering.
To kick-off the competition at USC’s campus, IBM provided students with a crash course on Watson’s breakthrough capabilities, including a demonstration of how Watson is helping WellPoint, Inc. and Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center improve the speed and quality of treatment for cancer patients.
As the first cognitive computing system of its kind in the marketplace, Watson is able to understand and process the subtleties of human questions, sift through vast amounts of data, and use sophisticated analytics to generate fast, accurate answers for its human users.
Watson also learns from its interactions, constantly improving with each use. This represents a major shift in organizations’ ability to quickly analyze, understand and respond to Big Data, in industries such as healthcare — and this is where student minds were put to the test.
As part of the competition, students were assigned into 24 teams and given 48 hours to define a new purpose for Watson, develop a business plan, and present it to a panel of judges comprising school officials, IBM executives and local business leaders.
The challenge was unique among USC competitions because students worked toward a common goal with peers from other disciplines — similar to how IBM combines the talent of business leaders and research scientists to develop its patented innovations.
To foster interdisciplinary collaboration, each team was required to have at least one business and one engineering member, from USC’s Marshall Business School and Viterbi School of Engineering.
What’s Your Business Plan For Watson?
The student teams faced two rounds of judging based on four areas of criteria: how well the concept and supporting plan articulated and supported the team’s vision; the feasibility of bringing the product or service to market and the supporting elements; the extent the proposed solution leverages Watson’s key capabilities; and the team’s presentation. Three winning ideas were selected by a panel of eight industry and faculty judges, including representatives from Bank of America, Ernst & Young, and IBM.
- 1st Place – Legal Research: Let Watson Do the Discovery for Your Next Legal Case – For corporate legal departments, building a case — or defending one’s own — relies heavily on fast and accurate research. Past legal trials, court documents, articles and digital evidence: all of these materials can make or break a case, and together they comprise a sea of unstructured data that is both time-consuming and costly to pore through. The first place USC team proposed using Watson to process its users’ research needs, based on its ability to think like a human, quickly sift through online legal documents for facts, and not only identify evidence to support a case — but forecast its probability of success. The first place team’s viewpoint: by placing Watson in charge of research, firms can recover time and costs, while delivering better legal outcomes. In turn, firms that leverage Watson’s speed and efficiency can address the growing legal trend towards “flat fee” billing and research outsourcing.
- 2nd Place – Employee Training: Watson Uncovers the Keys to Success for Your Employees – According to the American Society for Training and Development (ASTD), 41 percent of employees at companies with inadequate training programs plan to leave within a year, versus 12 percent of employees at companies who provide excellent training and professional development programs. Conversely, the ASTD also states that effective employee training can lead to 218 percent higher income per employee and 45 percent higher shareholder return than market average. The second place USC team proposes that corporate human resource departments use Watson to optimize employee training, by crunching data pertaining to the employers’ HR needs, the employees’ career goals, and the range of training options available that can help both parties succeed. The second place team’s viewpoint: by improving employee satisfaction and retention, a Watson-powered employee training system can also drive higher shareholder value.
- 3rd Place – Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: Watson Helps Doctors Find Patients – It is reported that Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder affects nearly 7.7 million U.S. adults aged 18 and older. This includes people who have served in combat, experienced domestic violence, have been in car accidents, or other traumatic events. Many with PTSD suffer silently, including the 400,000+ U.S. veterans who have yet to be identified and treated, per the U.S. Veterans Administration. Thankfully, the catalysts behind this illness need no longer remain invisible — due largely to Big Data. For example, there are now unprecedented amounts of data that accompany soldiers who return from war, from medical histories to information on combat experiences. The third place USC team proposes that physicians use Watson to identify people who may develop PTSD, by uncovering insights from data that can help piece together their personal story and shed light on pain he or she may be experiencing. The team’s viewpoint: by helping physicians find and diagnose those suffering from PTSD, Watson can help medical professionals offer patients the treatment they deserve.
Fueling Innovation While Investing In The Next Generation Of Tech Leaders
This competition is the latest example of how IBM is fueling innovation and working with students in higher education to hone valuable business skills that will shape the next generation of industry leaders.
Due to the overwhelming response from USC students seeking to participate in the Watson Academic Case Competition, students had to join a waiting list, once the 24-team maximum had been reached. One faculty sponsor, noting that the level of interest was unprecedented for a campus case competition, predicted registration could reach 500 next year.
“For USC students, the opportunity to share their own ideas with IBM on how to commercialize Watson is truly a unique experience,” said Ashish Soni, Executive Director of Digital Innovation and Founding Director of the Viterbi Student Innovation Institute at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering. “As educators, we’re quite pleased to see students getting excited about cognitive computing innovation, because we know there’s a business demand for the types of skills they get to showcase in Watson Case Competitions.”
Watson — Building a New Big Data Workforce
It’s no secret that employers across the U.S. are seeking job candidates who can analyze and build strategy around Big Data, or the 2.5 quintillion bytes of information gleaned from sensors, mobile devices, online transactions and social networks, to name just a few sources. A recent Gartner report estimates that 1.9 million Big Data jobs will be created in the U.S. by 2015.
The Watson Case Competition at USC, the third in a series hosted by IBM, is the latest example of IBM’s work with academia to advance interest among students in Science Technology Engineering and Math (STEM) curriculums that will lead to high-impact, high-value careers. The competition is in keeping with IBM’s Academic Initiative which delivers course work, case studies and curricula to more than 6,000 universities and 30,000 faculty members worldwide to help students prepare for high-value future job opportunities.
IBM worked closely with academic institutions during the development and introduction of Watson. Eight leading universities around the world participated in the development phase of the system; and more than 10,000 students watched Watson triumph on the Jeopardy! quiz show in February 2011. Most recently, IBM announced it would provide a modified version of an IBM Watson system to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, making it the first university to receive such a system that will enable leading-edge research by faculty and students.
The competition at USC marks the latest collaboration between the university and IBM. Over the last two years, students at the school’s Annenberg Innovation Lab have been using Big Data analytics technologies to conduct social sentiment analyses and determine public engagement on topics such as sports, film, retail and fashion.
Two of the biggest projects looked at Major League Baseball’s World Series and the Academy Awards, projects developed for students to explore and expand their skills as they prepare for new data-intensive careers. IBM also collaborated with the USC Marshall School of Business for “The Great Mind Challenge,” a global academic initiative focused on providing students with an opportunity to turn their social networking savvy into business ready skills to prepare for the jobs of the future.
IBM’s SmartCamp Global Finals are slated to be held at the Waldorf Astoria in New York City on February 7th.
The SmartCamp initiative was launched in 2010 with the goal of identifying early-stage entrepreneurs who are developing business ventures that would align with the IBM Smarter Planet vision, and give them the visibility, mentoring, and resources that only a large company like IBM can provide.
On the 7th, eight startups from around the world will compete in New York City for the title of “IBM Global Entrepreneur of the Year.”
The IBM SmartCamp Global Finals will bring together leading venture capitalists, industry experts, press, analysts, entrepreneurial organizations and academics to network and celebrate entrepreneurship.
The Global Finals will feature eight startup finalists from around the world, from Kenya to France to Singapore. The eight finalists not only come from all walks of life, but they offer a broad range of innovative solutions that all have the potential to make the planet a whole lot smarter.
Finalist HistoIndex, a startup from Singapore, has an imaging solution which will allow for earlier detection and better treatment of fibrosis.
GetWay, a big data startup from Brazil, enables any industry to precisely monitor real-time sales data in retailers spread all over a territory.
And QuintessenceLabs, from Australia, has harnessed the properties of nature as described by quantum science to fortify the protection of data in-transit, at-rest and in-use.
You can be a part of the excitement on February 7th at the SmartCamp Global Finals, where you’ll have the opportunity to network with innovators, business leaders, and experts from around the world, hear the startup finalists’ presentations, and witness the naming of a new IBM Entrepreneur of the Year.
Go here to learn more and to register to attend the event. As an FYI, I had the great privilege of helping cover the event last year in San Francisco, and recorded a video with Scott Laningham (embedded in this blog post) where I summarized what I learned.
IBM released its annual “5 in 5″ list yesterday, the seventh year in a row whereby IBM scientists identify a list of innovations that have the potential to change the way people work, live and interact during the next five years.
The IBM 5 in 5 is based on market and societal trends, as well as emerging technologies from IBM’s R&D labs around the world. This year, the 5 explores innovations that will be underpinnings of the next era of computing, what IBM has described as “the era of cognitive systems.”
This next generation of machines will learn, adapt, sense, and begin to experience the world as it really is, and this year’s predictions focus on one element of the this new era: The ability of computers to mimic the human senses — in their own manner, to see, smell, touch, taste and hear.
But before you try and spoon-feed your iPad some vanilla yogurt, let’s get more practical.
These new sensing capabilities will help us become more aware, productive, and help us think — but not do our thinking for us.
Rather, cognitive systems will help us see through and navigate complexity, keep up with the speed of information, make more informed decisions, improve our health and standard of living, and break down all kinds of barriers — geographical, language, cost, even accessibility.
Now, on to our five senses.
1) Touch: You will be able to touch through your phone. Imagine using your smartphone to shop for your wedding dress and being able to feel the satin or silk of the gown, or the lace on the veil, from the surface on the screen. Or to feel the beading and weave of a blanket made by a local artisan half way around the world. In five years, industries like retail will be transformed by the ability to “touch” a product through your mobile device.
IBM scientists are developing applications for the retail, healthcare and other sectors using haptic, infrared and pressure sensitive technologies to simulate touch, such as the texture and weave of a fabric — as a shopper brushes her finger over the image of the item on a device screen. Utilizing the vibration capabilities of the phone, every object will have a unique set of vibration patterns that represents the touch experience: short fast patterns, or longer and stronger strings of vibrations. The vibration pattern will differentiate silk from linen or cotton, helping simulate the physical sensation of actually touching the material.
2) Sight: A pixel will be worth a thousand words. We take some 500 billion photos a year, and 72 hours of video is uploaded to YouTube every minute. But computers today only understand pictures by the text we use to tag or title them; the majority of the information — the actual content of the image — is a mystery.
In the next five years, systems will not only be able to look at and recognize the contents of images and visual data, they will turn the pixels into meaning, making sense out of it similar to the way a human views and interprets a photographs. In the future, “brain-like” capabilities will let computers analyze features such as color, texture patterns or edge information and extract insights from visual media, having a potentially huge impact on industries ranging from healthcare to retail to agriculture.
But please, no Escher drawings, at least for now…that’s just plain mean.
3) Hearing: Computers will hear what matters. Ever wish you could make sense of all the sounds around you and be able to understand what’s not being said? Within five years, distributed systems of clever sensors will detect elements of sound such as sound pressure, vibrations and sound waves at different frequencies.
It will interpret these inputs to predict when trees will fall in a forest or when a landslide is imminent. Such a system will “listen” to our surroundings and measure movements, or the stress in a material, to warn us if danger lies ahead.
I’m ever hopeful such systems will be able to “listen” to my golf swing and help me course correct so I can play more target golf!
4) Taste: Digital taste buds will help you to eat smarter. What if we could make healthy foods taste delicious using a different kind of computing system built for creativity? IBM researchers are developing a computing system that actually experiences flavor, to be used with chefs to create the most tasty and novel recipes. It will break down ingredients to their molecular level and blend the chemistry of food compounds with the psychology behind what flavors and smells humans prefer.
By comparing this with millions of recipes, the system will be able to create new flavor combinations that pair, for example, roasted chestnuts with other foods such as cooked beetroot, fresh caviar, and dry-cured ham.
“Top Tasting Computer Chefs,” anyone?
5) Smell: Computers will have a sense of smell. During the next five years, tiny sensors embedded in your computer or cell phone will detect if you’re coming down with a cold or other illness. By analyzing odors, biomarkers and thousands of molecules in someone’s breath, doctors will have help diagnosing and monitoring the onset of ailments such as liver and kidney disorders, asthma, diabetes, and epilepsy by detecting which odors are normal and which are not.
Already, IBM scientists are sensing environment conditions to preserve works of art, and this innovation is starting to be applied to tackle clinical hygiene, one of the biggest healthcare challenges today. In the next five years, IBM technology will “smell” surfaces for disinfectants to determine whether rooms have been sanitized. Using novel wireless mesh networks, data on various chemicals will be gathered and measured by sensors, and continuously learn and adapt to new smells over time.
Watch the video below to listen to IBM scientists describe some of these new innovations and their potential impact on our world.
Hello there. I’m back in Austin, Texas, and no worse for the wear.
Las Vegas was…well, Las Vegas. Although I must say, I was most impressed with Wynn Las Vegas.
Steve Wynn has been a lightning rod of controversy during his reign as a resort mogul in Las Vegas (and, now, Macau), and having only seen him in interviews on “60 Minutes,” I can’t say as I had much of an opinion one way or the other.
But, after staying at his 60+ story hotel on the Strip these past few days, I can attest to the level of personal detail and attention he puts into his properties.
Upon arrival on Sunday, I waited a good 30 minutes just to check in. But, upon reflection, I guess that’s a good sign for Mr. Wynn and his couterie, and they were kind enough to bring me a bottle of water to myself and other customers who were patiently waiting.
But if hotels can do such a great job of enabling a streamlined checkout (video, phone check out, express checkout, etc.), there’s clearly still room for much improvement on better “processing” customers when they arrive. Smarter check-in, anybody?
But all in all, very impressed with the Wynn brand experience.
As for the Word of Mouth Marketing Association Summit, I’m still processing all the great info I took in, and may dedicate a more thoughtful post on my experience about that later.
But, since I was pre-occupied for a few days, we’ve had some important IBM news that fell below my blogging radar.
The most notable announcement emerged earlier today, one for IBM Business Partners and their clients.
IBM announced today it is providing IBM Business Partners with $4 billion in financing for credit-qualified clients over a period of 12 months.
This financing, through IBM Global Financing, can make obtaining credit easier and more accessible to IBM’s global partner ecosystem and their clients to acquire advanced technologies such as cloud, analytics and PureSystems.
Also, IBM is launching a new mobile app as another step to simplify the way IBM’s Business Partners can apply for and secure financing for their clients within minutes via any mobile device.
This financing initiative builds on the $1 billion in financing IBM Global Financing made available through IBM Business Partners for small and midsized businesses in 2011, which resulted in 6,800 global companies using financing and enabling them to invest in some of these important emerging technologies.
To learn more, you can visit IBM Global Financing here.
I indicated in a post recently that I had gotten rid of my HBO bundle through AT&T U-Verse’s system, with all due apologies to Bill Maher and the new show about news, “The Newsroom.”
But my underlying futility was really about the inability to buy or rent specific content “a la carte” (i.e., be able to buy specific channels of content without having to provide the financial overhead underwriting others) than it was about the quality of the content itself.
New models are of digital content development and management are emerging that can help challenge these legacy financial constructs. Today, at the International Broadcasting Convention (IBC), IBM announced it has helped Canal+ Group deliver and archive digital comment.
Canal+ Group is the leading pay-TV broadcaster in France, and now will be able to more easily launch and manage new channels and services such as on-demand, web-TV, and even mobile-TV.
Prior to its process and archiving overhaul, Canal+ often used separate and isolated systems to manage its services, often making the production process cumbersome, manually intensive and costly.
Today, the staff has access to an interactive portal that collates and manages over 170 hours of content per day or 8,000 programs per year, whether from tape, external files or post-production video.
The intuitive portal allows multimedia content to flow back and forth in real-time across business units such as programming, advertising, editorial, archiving, production, and distribution.
“This project has helped Canal+ undergo a major transformation, not just in terms of how we operate internally, but how we service our customers,” said Jo Guegan, executive vice president, Technology and Information Systems, Canal+ Group. “
“This new intelligent system ensures we have the tools to produce and process programs in a time frame that keeps us ahead of our competitors in France and globally. As a result, Canal+ has become one of the first organizations in the world to dynamically monitor its workflow processes.”
IBM Impact 2012: A Q&A With Steve Jobs’ Biographer Walter Isaacson On Steve Jobs And Innovation, The Renaissance In New Orleans, And His Forthcoming Book On The History Of Computing
The opportunity I had to sit down and interview Steve Jobs’ biographer Walter Isaacson last week at IBM’s Impact 2012 event in Las Vegas was a kind of career denouement moment for me. Let me explain: In 1994, as I was finishing work on my Master’s degree in Radio/TV/Film (they hadn’t yet added “Internet” to the RTVF degree in 1994) at the University of North Texas, I distinctly remember sending my resume off to the new inner digital sanctum of Time magazine, “Pathfinder,” which had recently been started to put some muscle behind Time’s digital presence. They didn’t hire me, but they did hire Walter Isaacson, who would be asked to run the groundbreaking digital media organization for a short period before he was later promoted to editor of Time and, later, chairman of CNN.
As for me, information technology, and the Internet in particular, would become central to Isaacson’s life, first at Pathfinder, later at Time magazine, and of course as the biographer of great figures ranging from Albert Einstein to Benjamin Franklin to Steve Jobs, all of whom were unique innovators in and of their own right. What’s not as well known about Isaacson is that he is a Renaissance Man of sorts himself. To read his biography (see below) is to witness the firsthand account of a personal witness to and participant in American life over these past forty years, one whose own accounts will be cherished for many years to come. I hope you enjoy reading the interview as much as I did conducting it!
Turbo: First of all, thank you for taking the time to speak with me, I know you’re very busy. You’ve now written biographies across a range of iconic figures of American life — Einstein, Franklin, Kissinger, and now Steve Jobs — I’m curious across all of these if you start to see some common traits and characteristics?
Walter Isaacson: Yeah, well like I said in the speech today, curiosity, a passion for what you do, an ability to think different, an ability to be imaginative and to think out of the box. You know Steve’s great mantra was “Think Different.” He also loved “Stay Hungry, Stay Foolish.” The fact that Einstein and Benjamin Franklin, even in their final years, were thinking different, being creative, being innovative….to me, that’s the goal of life.
Turbo: Were there other characteristics? Some not so positive?
Walter Isaacson: They were different in some ways. Benjamin Franklin is a nice counterpart to Steve Jobs, because Steve was more of a genius, more creative…but Franklin was more collaborative, kinder to the people around him, and more open to different viewpoints. So, Benjamin Franklin was really great at collaborating with other people. Franklin tells a wonderful story in his autobiography of listing all the virtues you need to have to be good in business: industry, honesty, frugality…and after he has all twelve of the virtues and he practices them, a person in the club he’s formed, called the “Leather Apron” club, says “You’re missing a virtue.” And Franklin says “What’s that?” And the friend says “Humility, you might want to try that one.”
Walter Isaacson: And Franklin says, “I was never very good at the virtue of humility, but I was very good at the pretense of humility…I could fake it very well. And I learned that the pretense of humility was as useful as the reality of humility. Because it made you listen to the person next to you, it made you try to see if you could find common ground.” And that was something that was part of the nature of Benjamin Franklin. It was not part of the nature of Steve Jobs.
But, that’s why biographies are not how-to manuals…they’re tales about real people. And you have to extract the lessons from each character that you think might apply to you. So for me, I’ll never be a genius like Steve Jobs…I’ll never drive to the concept of an iPad, drive into existence an iPad…I’m just not that genius…but I try to think about Steve’s passion for perfection, and I also try to think about Ben Franklin’s ability to bring people together, and be very nice and kind to people of all walks of life.
Turbo: I know you conducted 40-something interviews with Jobs, and I know you spoke with a lot of his friends, his family members and even his rivals…Was there anything that they all consistently said when they talked about Jobs as a person?
Walter Isaacson: I think that they consistently said that he was on the surface, very impatient and petulant. But once you got to know him, the important thing to understand, was that the petulance, that brattiness at times, was connected to a passion for perfection, and that’s what the narrative of the book is about, which is anybody can be a jerk. It wasn’t that Steve was a jerk, it was that he had a passion for perfection and that’s why by the end of the book, you should be admiring him.
Turbo: We got to speak with Steve Wozniak at our IBM Pulse event earlier this year, and I asked him…and I’d like to ask you the same question I asked him, which is what do you think the world lost with him leaving us so soon?
Walter Isaacson: I think Steve was a person who reinvented at least seven industries: Personal computing, the music business, retail stores, digital animation, tablet publishing, journalism, phones…he would have reinvented more industries — digital photography, textbooks, television — we lost with Steve somebody who, because of his ability to think different, was able to transform industries. And that’s what the book is about: Sometimes you have to have a driven, intense personality in order to have the passion it takes to change industries.
Turbo: Okay, thank you for that. I wanted to now take a step back in time to 1995-1996…I don’t know exactly what year it was, but I believe it’s when you took over the Time digital arm, Pathfinder.
Walter Isaacson: Yeah, actually it was a couple of years before that…when I took over Time, the magazine, at the end of 1995…
Turbo: Could you just describe for me that time at Time?
Walter Isaacson: It was very interesting during that period. In the early 1990s, there was a sea change happening. The Internet up until then had been based on community and networking and chat. It had the BBS boards of the original Internet, you’d had the communities like The Well, and you had online services like CompuServe and AOL, where people gathered in chat rooms and on bulletin boards.
In the early 1990s, there was a shift from that type of Internet to a web-based Internet. That had some great advantages, but a few disadvantages. The Web became a place that we could put all of our content up on Web sites, but it was more of a publishing medium than it was a community medium. You know, comments got relegated to the bottom of the page, as opposed to the smart bulletin boards and discussion groups, and Listserves, we used to have before the Web dominated the Internet.
Secondly, the business model for putting up your content online with a service like CompuServe or AOL, you would make money because people paid to be on those services, and people shared the money with you, if you were Time magazine. But once you started to put stuff on the Web, it sort of became free, and it undermined to some extent the business model of having journalists and bureaus around the world.
Of course it had much more of an upside than it had a downside, because it opened up reporting and journalism and commentary to everybody, not just those who owned a magazine.
Turbo: What are your thoughts on the greater impact of not only the commercialization of the Internet, but some of the trends it has enabled. If we look at some of the workforce dislocation, and creating new market opportunities in countries like India and China, because of this wonderful connection via first satellites and later the Internet…When we’re looking back 100 years from now, what do you think historians will be saying about this time?
Walter Isaacson: They will be saying that the Internet was, like every information technology starting with the invention of papyrus and paper and Gutenberg’s movable type, that it empowered individuals. The free flow of information tends, over the course of time, to take power away from authorities and elites and empower individuals. The Internet’s role 100 years from now will be this transformation that not only did it take power away from the elites and mainstream media, but also the people running authoritarian regimes around the world.
Turbo: So, in looking at some of what we’ve seen with the Arab Spring….and China now trying with this recent situation (the social media crackdowns by the Chinese government)…
Walter Isaacson: I don’t think that it’s a simple process where free flow of information automatically leads to democracy. Because you’ll have a lot of back and forth. But, it does bend the arc of history towards empowerment and democracy and, eventually, whether it takes 10 or 50 years, what’s happening with the Arab Spring, what’s happening in China, what’s happening in many places, will be a trend towards more personal freedom and more democracy.
Turbo: You were chairman of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, and for people who don’t know them, they oversee Radio Free Europe and the Voice of America. What’s the changing role of the Board and the VOA in this increasingly Internet connected world?
Walter Isaacson: I think that if, sixty years ago, when VOA and Radio Free Europe were being created, if they had had the ability to sketch out on the whiteboard what would be the perfect technology to help their cause, they would have invented the Internet. Something that doesn’t respect national boundaries that well, that allows people to find proxy servers to get through to information they need. So there will be a big shift towards digital information. And I hope towards community and discussion, not just handing down information the way Edward R. Murrow would have done when he ran Voice of America but creating communities and discussions that can be facilitated by the Internet.
Turbo: A couple of other quick questions…You have deep roots in New Orleans: You grew up there, you went to school there. And after Hurricane Katrina, Governor Kathleen Blanco appointed you vice chairman of the Louisiana Recovery Authority. We’re now seven years on — how do you feel New Orleans is doing? Have you been back recently?
Walter Isaacson: I go back all the time. And New Orleans has not only come back, but in most ways, it’s better than before the storm.
Turbo: How so?
Walter Isaacson: We have a better school system. More choice for kids in the schools. More than 70 percent of the kids are in charter schools which allows innovative, entrepreneurial people like KIPP Academy to create schools that stay open until seven in the evening, eleven months a year, which is the way we should have education in our society. Likewise, there’s more entrepreneurship in New Orleans.
I think Forbes magazine called it maybe the best city for startups and entrepreneurship because so many young people are coming in. There’s a brain magnet in New Orleans. Teach for America has almost tripled in size in New Orleans since before the storm, bringing young people in who want to be part of the educational renaissance there. Tim Williamson has created Idea Village, which is an incubator for start-ups right in the heart of New Orleans. Tulane University has three times as many applicants as it did before the storm because eager, adventurous, entrepreneurial people want to be part of a city that’s rebuilding.
Mitch Landrieu is a great mayor — we have a political system that is much better than it was before the storm. There are even more restaurants than there were before the storm, probably more bars. So, for those of us who were worried that New Orleans would never come back, it is a great case study not only in resilience, but in reinvention — to say, if we were to build a school system from scratch, would we build it the same way we had it before the storm? No. Let’s start a more entrepreneurial school system where the schools are open later, they spend more of the year where they compete for students, and you’ve had double-digit test score gains, every year for the past three years.
So, these are the types of things that keep me coming back to New Orleans, but also make me glad that so many young tech and web entrepreneurs have moved to the city to create this vibrant start-up community there.
Turbo: That’s great. My ears perked up in your keynote when you talked about how you’re working on this new book about the information revolution. Any themes you’re starting to see in your research that you can share with us in advance of its publication?
Walter Isaacson: One major theme, which is the theme of the Steve Jobs book and everything else I’ve written, which is innovation comes where there’s an intersection between the arts and the sciences. When there’s an intersection between poetry and microprocessors. Where a great feel for beauty and design is connected with a great feel for technology and engineering. That’s what Steve Jobs is all about, that’s what Ben Franklin was all about, that’s what Einstein was about.
So it starts with Ada Byron Lovelace, the daughter of Lord Byron, who becomes a great mathematician, because her mother doesn’t want her to grow up to be like her dad. And, she also has within her the poetry of her genetic code, of her heritage. And so she works in the 1830s with Charles Babbage, who creates the first prototype of a computer, and she helps describe and envision how computers can become universal machines, and not just mathematical calculators.
And then it leaps forward from that chapter to Alan Turing, who also has a great feel for beauty, but helps invent the first computers at Bletchley Park when they’re breaking the German Enigma codes in England. And then to places like IBM, which is doing the Mark I computer at Harvard, and the University of Pennsylvania where they’re doing the Eniac, and the University of Iowa where John Atanassof is creating in the basement of the physics building an early version of the computer.
The computer and the Internet are the two most important inventions of the modern era. And yet most people don’t know how poetic, ingenious, and creative the people who invented those things were. In fact, most people don’t even know exactly who invented them.
And so this is a tale of inventiveness that will take us from Ada Lovelace all the way to, I hope, people who are doing social networks, mobile computing, and artificial intelligence today. It starts with Ada Byron Lovelace concluding that machines will never think, they will never originate their own creative ideas, and that’s certainly something that Alan Turing explores, but now it’s something that with Watson at IBM, and with the notion of artificial intelligence, is still something we look at and wonder will it ever happen?
(Blogger’s Note: I wanted to extend, as always, a special thank you to the consummate professionals with Drury Design Dynamics, a family business whose primary focus is nothing less than excellence. In particular, I’d like to thank Chris Drury and Mark Felix — they always keep me on my toes and are integral to making these Q&As happen at IBM customer events.)
Former CNN head and noted biographer Walter Isaacson captured my attention from the moment he walked on the IBM Impact 2012 stage and announced his next book would be a history of the computer age.
Then, Isaacson launched into an explanation of what attributes great innovators shared throughout history — Benjamin Franklin, Albert Einstein, Steve Jobs.
Though Isaacson’s keynote at times seemed like an uncoordinated symphony, the words of wisdom and insight, and keen observations into the lives of his subjects, made his talk both compelling and inspirational.
Isaacson paid homage in his opening comments to IBM’s 100-year history of innovation and contributions to the information age, but it was his most recent biographical subject, Steve Jobs, that he let serve as the channel behind the magic of an unwavering and driven innovator.
“Don’t be afraid,” Isaacson said in describing Jobs at his persuasive best. “You can do it.”
Whatever it might be really depended on the situation and circumstance — once, it was Jobs convincing Steve Wozniak to write some game code in four days. Another time, it was convincing Corning CEO Wendell Weeks that he could manufacture his “guerrilla glass — which, at that point, had never actually been manufactured — in time to support the first iPhones.
Jobs, of course, was an exemplar of the great American creation myth, but behind the mythology there were lots of life lessons learned, particularly in childhood, another universal Isaacson observed about his innovators.
“The most important thing is not making a great product,” Jobs explained to Isaacson in one of his nearly 40 interviews, “but rather a company that will continue to make great products.”
Jobs and Wozniak started their empire in their parents’ garage, and went on to change the world and, over the course of his life, Jobs’ changed multiple industries: personal computing, the music business, digital animation…the list goes on.
Childhood curiosities, Isaacson observed, shared by Franklin and Einstein.
That was another unique characteristic that they all shared: The curiousity and persistence to try and solve problems and look for new ways of thinking up until their last breaths.
Smart people are generally a dime a dozen, explained Isaacson, but the innovative people, the imaginative people — they’re the ones who change the world.
But they also shared an ability to quickly get to the heart of the problem, and to encourage others to find their way to simplicity.
Isaacson quotes Einstein this time, but he just as well could have once again been referring to Steve Jobs:
“Any damned fool can make something complicated…it takes a genius to make it simple.”
Perfect case in point, the “on/off” switch for the iPod, which was in one of the original early designs, but which Jobs pointed out was unnecessary when he reviewed a prototype with his designers.
“You don’t need an on/off switch,” he explained. “When you quit using the iPod it just powers down.”
And so it was.
Isaacson shared another revealing anecdote, this time about Benjamin Franklin’s participation in the drafting of the Declaration of Independence and, later, the collaboration on the drafting of the U.S. Constitution.
The original Declaration read: “We hold these truths to be sacred,” but Franklin, sensitive to the divine implications of such a phrase, and sensitive to the need for church/state clarity, suggested a re-wording: “We hold these truths to be self-evident.”
And so it was.
Yet years later, benefiting both from experience and having developed a sense of humility along the way, Franklin was more accommodating and facilitated a critical discussion centering on the inequities of power between the big states and little states in the nascent U.S. Union.
His urging to compromise led to the genius that became the U.S. House and Senate, where one body was proportional to the population, and the other was equitable regardless of state size. When a lady later asked him what he had “given them,” Franklin explained “A Republic, madam…if you can keep it.”
Yet despite all of their incredible accomplishments and breakthrough innovations, each of these giant men were, in the end, just that, men, people, humans — filled with the same kind of self-doubts and wonderment at the universe as all the rest of us.
Isaacson reminded us when Jobs returned to the helm of Apple in 1997 that he green-lighted a new ad campaign from Chiat/Day that celebrated the spirt of the great innovators. The slogan went like this:
“People who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do.”
He was. And he did. Einstein was. And he did. Franklin was, and he did.
Each in their own unique way, but with underneath each a connecting thread of a drive towards perfection, an insatiable amount of unsated curiosity, and always looking for a way forward.
Isaacson closed his talk with a beautiful and reminiscent story of Jobs, who knew he was nearing his last days on earth. He asked Jobs, with all his Zen Buddhism training, what he felt spiritually, and did he feel there was something larger in this world than the moments we spend on this spinning globe?
Jobs explained that he liked to think so, that our spirits live on, and all that accumulated spiritual wisdom somehow benefits us moving forward.
But then, after a pause, he explained that at other times, he felt that death is just like one of those on-off switches.
Like the ones he didn’t want included on the iPod.
BLOGGER’S NOTE: I had occasion to interview Walter Isaacson on the key themes behind his keynote just after he was finished speaking. Among other things, I questioned him about his early work in digital media at Time’s Pathfinder group in 1994-1995, the impact of the Internet on the global economy, his work with the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe on the Broadcasting Board of Governors, and his perspective on the renaissance New Orleans is currently enjoying. Stay tuned to the Turbo blog for more on this far-ranging and compelling Q&A.