I was happily surprised to be chosen as an “IBM influencer” and invited to the innovation and disruption Forum organized in Toronto the 16th of November to celebrate the 100th anniversary of IBM in Canada. With a handful of other people, I had the privilege to meet with Bryson Koehler the CTO of the IBM Cloud and Watson (Watson is the name given to IBM’s artificial intelligence). That meeting was of great interest to me: I learned a lot about the current state of cloud computing and artificial intelligence.


Image: Demonstration of a robot at the IBM innovation and disruption forum in Toronto

Contrary to other big tech companies, IBM already existed when I was born in 1956. The company was in the business of computing even before the transistors. IBM adapted itself to electronics and dominated the industry in the era of big central mainframes. It survived the PC revolution when Microsoft and Apple were kings. They navigated the turbulent waters of the social Web despite the might of Google, Facebook, and Amazon. IBM is today one of the biggest players in the market for cloud computing, artificial intelligence and business consulting.

The transitions and transformations in IBM’s history were not only technological but also cultural. In the seventies, when I was a young philosopher and new technology enthusiast, IBM was the epitome of the grey suit, blue tie, black attache-case corporate America. Now, every IBM employee – from the CEO Dino Trevisani to the salesman – wears jeans. IBM used to be the “anti-Apple” company but now everybody has a Mac laptop. Instead of proprietary technology, IBM promotes open-source software. IBM posters advertise an all-inclusive and diverse “you” across the specter of gender, race, and age. Its official management and engineering philosophy is design thinking and, along with the innovative spirit, the greatest of IBM’s virtues is the ability to listen!

Toronto’s Forum was all about innovation and disruption. Innovation is mainly about entrepreneurship: self-confidence, audacity, tenacity, resilience and market orientation. Today’s innovation is “agile”: implement a little bit, test, listen to the clients, learn from your errors, re-implement, etc. As for the disruption, it is inevitable, not only because of the speed of digital transformation but also because of the cultural shifts and the sheer succession of generations. So their argument is fairly simple: instead of being disrupted, be the disruptor! The overall atmosphere of the Forum was positive and inspirational and it was a pleasure to participate.

There were two kinds of general presentations: by IBM clients and by IBM strategists and leaders. In addition, a lot of stands, product demonstrations and informative mini-talks on various subjects enabled the attendees to learn about current issues like e-health and hospital applications, robotics, data management, social marketing, blockchain and so on. One of the highlights of the day was the interview of Arlene Dickinson (a well known Canadian TV personality, entrepreneur, and investor) by Dino Trevisani, the CEO of IBM Canada himself. Their conversation about innovation in Canada today was both instructive and entertaining.

From my point of view as a philosopher specialized in computing, Bryson Koehler (CTO for IBM cloud and Watson) made a wonderful presentation, imbued with simplicity and clarity, yet full of interesting content. Before being an IBMer Bryson worked for the Weather Channel, so he was familiar handling exabytes of data! According to Bryson Koehler, the future is not only the cloud, that is to say, infrastructure and software as a service, but also in the “cloud-native architecture“, where a lot of loosely connected mini-services can be easily assembled like Lego blocks and on top of which you can build agile and resilient applications. Bryson is convinced that all businesses are going to become “cloud natives” because they need the flexibility and security that it provides. To illustrate this, I learned that Watson is not a standalone monolithic “artificial intelligence” anymore but is now divided into several mini-services, each one with its API, and part of the IBM cloud offer alongside other services like blockchain, video storage, weather forecast, etc.

BrysonImage: Bryson Koehler at the IBM innovation and disruption Forum in Toronto

Bryson Koehler recognizes that the techniques of artificial intelligence,  the famous deep learning algorithms, in particular, are all the same amongst the big competitors (Amazon, Google, Microsoft and IBM) in the cloud business. These algorithms are now taught in universities and implemented in open source programs. So what makes the difference in IA today is not the technique but the quality and quantity of the datasets in use to train the algorithms. Since every big player has access to the public data on the web and to the syndicated data (on markets, news, finance, etc.) sold by specialized companies, what makes a real difference is the *private data* that lies behind the firewall of businesses. So what is the competitive advantage of IBM? Bryson Koehler sees it in the trust that the company inspires to its clients, and their willingness to confide their data to its cloud. IBM is “secure by design” and will never use a client’s dataset to train algorithms used by this client’s competitors. Everything boils down to confidence.

At lunchtime, with a dozen of other influencers, I had a conversation with researchers at Watson. I was impressed by what I learned about cognitive computing, one of IBM’s leitmotiv. Their idea is that the value is not created by replicating the human mind in a computer but in amplifying human cognition in real-world situations. In other words, Big Blue (IBM’s nickname) does not entertain the myth of singularity. It does not want to replace people with machines but help its clients to make better decisions in the workplace. There is a growing flow of data from which we can learn about ourselves and the world. Therefore we have no other choice than to automate the process of selecting the relevant information, synthesize its content and predict, as much as possible, our environment. IBM’s philosophy is grounded in intellectual humility. In this process of cognitive augmentation, nothing is perfect or definitive: people make errors, machines too, and there is always room for improvement of our models. Let’s not forget that only humans have goals, ask questions and can be satisfied. Machines are just here to help.

Once the forum was over, I was walking in front of the Ontario lake and thought about the similarity between philosophy and computer engineering: aren’t both building cognitive tools?

Toronto-boardwalkImage: walking meditation in front of the Lake Ontario after the IBM innovation and disruption Forum in Toronto