IBM CEO Rometty: Big Data Is Job No. 1

By Darryl K. Taft  |  Posted 2013-03-08 Print this article Print

Rometty delved into the IBM theory that this is the third wave of technology. The first wave was the era of tabulating systems or computers that counted things; the second was the era of programmable systems or computers that did what people programmed them to do.

Now, with the advent of big data, the world is in the era of cognitive systems or computers that are able to learn, like IBM's Watson, which Rometty said she thinks will be one of the greatest contributions IBM will make to the world.

"Watson's been to medical school, and we taught it oncology," she said.

IBM has teamed with several medical institutions to make Watson into an advisor to doctors fighting cancer. The cognitive system also has been applied to financial services and at telcos for call center operations.

Asked whether IBM is able to compete with tech companies in Silicon Valley for some of the bright minds coming out of the top schools, Rometty said, "People come to IBM because you can work on some of the world's biggest problems. And we have the last commercial research organization."

Rometty also addressed broader problems like immigration reform and stated that the need for more folks with math and science backgrounds makes reform a necessity. Yet she also spoke of how IBM is empowering students in schools here in the U.S., including schools in tougher parts of cities like New York and Chicago, to graduate with technical skills.

She also hit on corporate taxation and U.S. companies' investment in facilities in other countries. "You have to have the ability to move your capital around," she said.

Rometty also voiced concern about cyber-attacks, particularly state-sponsored attacks.  It is a "big data analytics problem," she said, where you look for things out of the ordinary like footprints in the sand. She said "information sharing without liability" could help in dealing with this problem.

IBM has been increasing its investment in Africa over the years. Last year, the company opened a research center in Nairobi, Kenya. "Originally the way research worked at IBM is we'd open up next to a very prestigious university," Rometty said. "But back to big data, you have to open up a research center in the middle of a problem. That's what took us to Nairobi."

Rometty also noted that Africa is not one cohesive continent but 54 separate nations, each with different political climates that may not be so business-friendly. "We're in 24 [African] countries today," she said. "There is great opportunity there. We believe strongly that this is the time."

IBM has been ramping up its profile on the continent as part of its focus on emerging markets. The expansion program is part of a major business plan to increase IBM's presence in growth markets and support global strategy. The company sees the potential of research and smarter systems in transforming business, government and society across the continent.


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