Sunday, February 27, 2011

Research is critical to our Future

It is amazing what we don’t know.  We take for granted so many inventions.  It seems sometimes that we have become immune to innovation.  Often we see blog posts or tweets complaining about what some new product or service doesn’t have rather than sharing their awe at what it does have.  I too get caught up in “what’s missing” sometimes.  Well, in this post I share some amazing (my opinion) things researchers at IBM are doing.

I had the pleasure of joining about 40 educators and IT directors at IBM Research Almaden in San Jose (Silicon Valley), California.  Almaden Research CenterIt is located on the outskirts of the city on a high hill in its own private wilderness of 690 acres.  Researchers (currently about 800 chemists, computer scientists, engineers, mathematicians, and physicists) at Almaden have invented a whole host of new processes and capabilities including:

  • relational database architecture (crucial to databases that govern our livelihoods and lives)
  • all sorts of disk drive technologies and 1st for new densities (that store everything digital)
  • first Internet connection
  • first to position individual atoms, one at a time (break through for atomic engineering, medical and material sciences, etc.)
  • cryptography breakthroughs (used for banking, other secure applications)
  • Spintronics to exploit quantum spin properties of electrons (potential for orders of magnitude improvement in computing power)
  • explore and control atom-scale magnetism (could be useful in electric motors, the future of transportation)
  • created software to predict the spread of emerging infectious diseases (like H1N1)
  • developed a “Rehearsal Studio” (to let you practice your job in a 3D world)
  • developing a computer or a holistic intelligent machine based on human brain research
  • developing desalination technology (to address the looming world water shortage)
  • battery technologies (to support electric vehicle adoption)

We met the scientist who invented the ability to pick up and place individual atoms.  We spoke with a scientist working to create iStock_000007647676XSmallrobots that can be remote assistants for us.  We could stay and work at home a few days a week, and remotely attend meetings vicariously through our robot.  It would project our image via webcams and be able to interact with its environment under our control (could be a handy way to reduce commuting…).

We heard from scientists working on a project called SPLASH (Smarter PLanet platform for Analysis and Simulation of Health).  This is an project to help decision makers understand the impact of health choices and initiatives. It is a system that will model complex interactions of systems to better match the real world.  From the presenter “our planet is a complex dynamic, and highly interrelated $54 Trillion system-of-systems”.  We also heard, via video conference, from the lead scientist on the Watson project.  He described the challenges and methods used to create Watson, the computer which recently beat the two best human Jeopardy players – fascinating.  Via a tour, we saw Blue Gene, the fastest super computer on the planet and a bizarre machine used to “grow” quantum circuits in 3D at an atomic level.

I was invited to share our journey creating our my43 learning portal.  Talk about feeling nervous!  I am no scientist and presenting from SNAGHTML18544ae4the same stage in the same theatre as these world renowned scientists just didn’t seem right.  But what an honor to be able to present at this event.  If you’re interested in viewing my presentation, it is available here.

I want to highlight one of the researchers we met, Tom Zimmerman, an IBM Fellow.  He is working on the robotics project I referred to earlier (I sat and talked with him over dinner – a rather rich conversation).  Amazing statistics…  he has over 30 patents covering position tracking, user input, wireless, music, biometrics, and encryption.  He invented the Data Glove which has influenced virtual reality and gaming ever since. 

Tom Zimmerman spoke to us about his volunteer work in poor schools.  He made a statement that “life is one big science fair project” and “don’t underestimate what kids can do if you take them step-by-step through a process”.  His view is that hands-on learning wins hands-down.  He created the LCPA Extreme Science Program involving lab work (experiments), Fab work (building stuff), and Gab time (instruction – minimized to 5 minutes). 

“We want students to experience the joy of discovery and problem solving that is a fundamental component and reward of scientific or engineering work.”

This program offers after school science projects in Aeronautics, Robotics, Dancing, Chemistry, Solar Energy, to name a few disciplines.  He arranges for science colleagues in the San Jose area to commit to a few hours a week to run a project.  Students from this poor school report life changing experiences.  Tom shared statistics showing significant increases in science education (interest and success) due to this program.  You can view his photostream of school projects here.  Notable too is that many of the projects involved very inexpensive materials from Home Depot…

IBM celebrates its 100th birthday this year.  I think most of us are unaware of the contributions researchers from IBM have made to the advancement of our world.  Next time you turn on your iPOD or your Wii or visit your doctor for a scan or fire up your new computer or marvel at some new material, remember the contributions of IBM researchers to the things and services you benefit from!