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20.01.2015

The Tech Giants Shaping Our World Part 4: IBM Part 2

In 2011, IBM celebrated its centennial anniversary. 100 years in business is a significant achievement for any company. For one in the turbulent tides of the technology industry, it is otherwise unheard of.

In its time of operation, IBM has seen technological advances that fundamentally changed major aspects of our world. These advances include automated traffic signal timing. Magnetic stripes as seen on credit cards. UPC Bar Codes. Personal computers. Real-time airline reservation systems. Dynamic random-access memory. Fractal geometry. Relational databases. Systems network architecture. Laser printers. FORTRAN. Laser Eye Surgery. ATMs and even the advent of Social Security. The fact that IBM was around long before any of this existed is an impressive achievement… The fact that it pioneered every one of them is monumental.

Sure, IBM has an extremely impressive portfolio, but how is the company influencing our lives today?

Let’s start with cognitive computing, or more specifically, IBM’s Watson computer. Named after the man that propelled the company into prosperity, the Watson computer is essentially an extension of what humans can do at their best. It can read and understand natural human language, analysing data through hypothesis generation and evaluation to generate accurate responses when asked a question. The more it is used, the smarter it becomes, tracking feedback from its users and learning from successes and failures. It is so intelligent, in fact, that it demolished contestants on Jeopardy.

Of course, referencing back to how Watson is influencing our lives does not squarely rest upon its success on a televised game show. However, the potential of this machine is clear to see and is on course to revolutionise medicine. In the same way that pilots interface with computer systems to operate aircraft, physicians can now bridge the gap between scientists generating knowledge and the people putting those insights into practice. In effect, it is going to put the world’s collective knowledge to work in the practice of everyday medicine.

However, if history has told us anything, it’s that IBM’s thirst for innovation cannot be quenched by focusing on just one game-changer at a time. While IBM has a plethora of patents for new technologies, such as traffic lights that shut off car engines, one of the most astonishing breakthroughs has come in energy-efficient computing.

The company has developed the world’s first commercially viable, electronic-photonic integrated chip. If that doesn’t mean much, another option would be to refer to Moore’s Law. Every couple of years, computing power doubles and just as we’re getting used to the idea of gigabytes, we start hearing about terabytes. At time of writing, terabytes are not uncommon, but it wasn’t long ago that we were all swooning over having 500GB’s of disk space. Well prepare yourself, because your new terabyte hard drive is about to seem very substandard. IBM’s new chip is already capable of moving Terabytes of data in seconds, but it is expected to scale to not just Petabytes, but Exabytes.

Yes, an Exabyte. For a sense of scale, take that aforementioned terabyte hard drive of yours – it’s one million of those. And if that’s hard to visualise, 5 Exabytes is the equivalent of all words ever spoken by human beings.

How is this possible? Well, after more than a decade of research, IBM has finally cracked silicon nanophotonics. By fabricating a chip from a single crystal of silicon that integrates both electrical and optical components, data can be transferred – quite literally – at light speed. It is almost certain to revolutionise not only computing power, but energy efficiency – something that those of us in the data centre industry are acutely aware of.

IBM is continuing the trend it set over a century ago, and yet it remains humble. It operates in the background, innovating where others aren’t. Unlike some of the other tech giants in this series, IBM is not in our face everywhere we look. We may see the odd advert on television now and then, but IBM was not the first tech giant that sprang to mind when compiling this series. The company’s passivity toward the spotlight sometimes makes us forget that it is not only shaping our world today, but started doing so long ago.

In the world of technology, the search for innovation has never ceased. New businesses rise out of nothing to tread where giants have fallen. But in a century that saw two world wars, immeasurable advances in technology and a man step foot on the moon, IBM has a hand in it all.

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