The IET/BCS Turing Lecture – beyond cognition?

bernard-meyersonThis year the annual Turing Lecture series from the Institute of Engineering and Technology and The Chartered Institute for IT was delivered by Dr. Bernard Meyerson, Vice President for Innovation at IBM.

Responsible for IBM’s corporate technical strategy, Global University Relations and the IBM Academy – a worldwide organisation of around 1,000 IBM technical leaders, it’s fair to say Dr. Meyerson is a highly respected figure in the world of computing, data and innovation.

For a prestigious lecture series with innovation at its heart, it didn’t bode brilliantly that the microphone at Cardiff University didn’t work.  Also at odds with themes of progression and modernity was the theatre in the School of Engineering itself: surprisingly small, low-ceilinged, dated and slightly claustrophobic. A health and safety announcement informed that in the case of fire we were all to leave via the only single door through which we had all entered.  Having been among the first in, there were roughly a hundred people between me and said door, so my chances of making it out alive were slim.

As is fairly common at such events, the audience was 9/10ths male, a large contingent of which was grey-haired or bald-pated, perhaps reflecting the prestige the Turing Lecture series had earned over the years.  Amongst these was a sprinkling of students, as well as young and mid-career professionals.

Entitled “Beyond silicon: cognition and much, much more”, a good amount of the lecture proved beyond this blogger’s cognition.

After a brief introduction, Dr. Meyerson took the lectern.  Sporting a sensible suit and tie, a homely moustache and affable exterior, his gentle American accent began to tell of IBM.  It is an organisation that apparently doesn’t tend to shout about its successes, and perhaps it doesn’t need to.  Its prominence in semiconductor R&D, and its key role in developing WiFi as we know it today were offered by way of initial credentials.

From there Meyerson spoke in broader terms. The most important requirements for business growth were given as the ability to innovate, allocation of talent, and the ability to manage a global organisation; while two key elements of sustainable innovation were People and Global Infrastructure.  The idea of the world as a large interconnected laboratory appears to be one with which IBM has truly flown.

Personally it took a while to warm into the lecture, and in the early stages, perhaps not helped by the lack of microphone, Dr. Meyerson’s tangential style, number of quick asides and elaborate New Yorker drawl of analogies were difficult for me to follow.

Ongoing innovation was not to be undervalued, he asserted.  Changing small things iteratively had led from computers the weight of massive ships, to computers able to sit on his lectern.  Despite this, there is only so long before technology runs its course.  Considerable attention was given to the power of discontinuous innovation and its major major material impact on business and society.

In a talk laced with incidentals like ‘Chemists make THE BEST beer’ – about which Dr. Meyerson was adamant, the pace was sometimes too much, the stream of consciousness manner of speech too tricky and the concepts too high: something I struggled equally with in the previous year’s Turing lecture.  Maybe it’s something about the freewheeling nature of tech geniuses.  Keep up or get out.

The challenging narrative thread could be quickly lost but just as quickly return.

  • Elements employed in silicon technology are too many and have been in excess since 2006.
  • Shrinking technology is not getting faster or less costly in performance or production.
  • We have reached the foundational limits of silicon and scaling has been dead for a decade.

These big sounding announcements were delivered with such assertion and authority you were compelled to make a note, even if you couldn’t entirely understand what they meant.

The Data Solution

Near-term technology solutions for the above issues will be scaled by system integration. In other words, datacentres.  And these datacentres will employ new 3D Chip bonding, which will stack to give greater capacity.  There is and will continue to be a need to store, process and analyse data in many forms. Particularly key are medical obligations.

Data, Dr. Meyerson suggested, is the new oil.  Raw it is nothing, but refined it can run the world.  We need to rethink concepts of computers and data, as well as changes in system architecture and the need for new data-centric architecture.

Big data needs to be refined through analytics, producing new systems of engagement, systems of insight and systems of record.  But new architectures will pose new challenges, one of which is social media.  At this point a mindboggling diagram was shown. It looked like a complex medical tumour, but was in fact an exhibition of social media connections and spheres of influence.

Cognitive Computing and Watson

In the closing section, Dr. Meyerson spoke of cognitive computing, artificial intelligence and the progress of IBM’s own Watson Unit, which is concentrated on extending levels of human interaction.

The need for this was underlined through the idea that healthcare is dying of thirst in an ocean of data, and medicine is too complex.  A ‘context multiplier effect’ incumbent in much of Watson will newly enable informed decisions.  In much the same way ‘off label’ medicines and combinations of medicines have been successfully used to treat conditions they were not necessarily designed to treat (a story told in the recent Oscar nominated film Dallas Buyers Club), this will give new insights and new value.

Watson and its influence in the developing knowledge areas around human genomics and system insights will be critical, according to Dr. Meyerson, because everything else has been done.

  • The innovators of tomorrow will need a new mix of skills to marry complex systems producing big data.
  • Analytics can extract unprecedented insights and will be as common as the pocket calculator.
  • We have responsibility to enable solutions for a smarter planet, with all the societal benefits that entails.

These positive and optimistic notes of conclusion ran alongside a sense that we are at a dangerous tipping point of finite technology development. Little more can be done with current resources, and a fundamental rethink of innovation is needed.  There are reasons to be hopeful, it seems, but also reasons to be extremely careful.

Turing lectures are brutal and fascinating in their capacity to expose vast areas of knowledge you don’t possess and are unlikely to ever populate.  In the same way there are opposing reasons for hope and caution, the existence of Turing lecturers like Dr. Meyerson with huge minds is both reassuring and concerning.  We can only hope that people like this remain on the side of societal progress.

Read the Composed blog post on the 2013 Turing Lecture.
Read the Composed blog post on the 2015 Turing Lecture.

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