IBM Makes Math Cool, Current

IBM knows how to make math not only fun and cool, but also current by applying math to issues such as social media, among other things. Big Blue is using math to analyze things like Twitter feeds and blogs, as well as to create algorithms for business analytics and optimization.

HAWTHORNE, N.Y.-IBM knows how to make math not only fun and cool, but also current by applying math to issues such as social media, among other things.

Indeed, not only do IBM mathematicians focus on creating algorithms for the company's error-checking code or to make the company's software and hardware perform better, but they also apply math to analyzing data from social media such as Twitter feeds, social networking applications and blogs, said Brenda Dietrich, an IBM Fellow and vice president of the Business Analytics and Mathematical Sciences Department at the IBM Thomas J. Watson Research Center here.

"Social media is another rich source of data that can be understood in context," Dietrich said during a panel discussion about IBM's new Business Analytics and Optimization Services practice. "We're trying to better understand the dialogue out there on the blogs. We found a way to look at the combination of words" and the positive or negative way they are used to do things such as discern patterns and break the social interactions down to data that can delivered to IBM's business analytics and optimization consultants.

In an interview with eWEEK, Dietrich said of IBM's math team, "We are the deep technical partners for this new service line."

IBM Business Analytics and Optimization Services will draw on the company's expertise in vertical industries, research, mathematics and information management, the company said. Robert JT Morris, vice president of services research at IBM, said the math team has delivered algorithms for IBM's Cognos and Ilog products that consultants will use, as well as algorithms to improve the company's overall analytics capabilities.

Now that the new consulting practice has been launched, "We won't be involved in very much they do. ... Going forward, our role will be when clients are pushing the frontier," Dietrich said. Then the math team will come in and apply math techniques to the problem, she said.

Dietrich acknowledged that some of what she and her fellow mathematicians do is like the life of the lead character on the CBS crime drama "Numb3rs," where a math Ph.D. applies mathematic solutions to FBI cases.

"'Numb3rs' is one of my favorite TV shows," she said.

Dietrich's team consists of 200 people throughout the world, 150 of whom are Ph.D.s and the other 50 are master's-level software developers who have undergraduate degrees in math and master's degrees in computer science, she said.

John Kelly, senior vice president and director of research at IBM, said, "Our 150 mathematicians make up the largest math department in the world housed in one institution."

Dietrich said a typical week for an IBM mathematician includes spending time on their research agenda similar to a university professor. They also spend time "working on a real instance of the problem" they have been assigned to, as well as keeping current with the field of mathematics, she said. "We want our mathematicians lean and mean."

Dietrich also said the IBM math department is involved in almost every re-engineering effort in the company because the conclusiveness of math enables the company to "do a good job of managing based on facts" rather than on speculation or other factors.

Regarding how the group develops the algorithms it delivers to IBM's product and consulting groups, Dietrich said, "Most of what we do is evolutionary as opposed to revolutionary. You apply the approach you know, and you see what's wrong with it. And then you adjust and modify. ... The invention is incremental. The more interesting question is the model and which techniques to apply to a problem. That's part of the creative process. And that's some of what you see on 'Numb3rs.'"

Although Dietrich said she enjoys the show, she also said it is not always realistic. Moreover, she said it does something of a disservice to the field of math because "it implies that you have to be a child prodigy to become a math Ph.D., and we're not all like that."

Dietrich noted that another part of the IBM mathematician's role is to conduct outreach to high school and college students to encourage them to enroll in math classes and pursue math as a career. The technology industry has received its share of criticism for the relative paucity of women in IT. Yet, as an IBM fellow, vice president and head of the company's math department, Dietrich's own story is perhaps some of the best outreach IBM can offer.