IBM’s Tim Sheehy on the next four big things in tech

IBM’s director of research John E. Kelly III is headed to the Hill Tuesday to brief Congress members on the “Four Technologies that will Shape the Next Decade.” The event is sponsored by Rep. Mike McCaul (R-Texas) and Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and John Cornyn (R-Texas), with a panel discussion to follow.

According to the 100-year-old company, the areas to watch are: nanotechnology, big data and analytics, exascale systems and machines that learn. Some of these technologies are already in the public conciousness: IBM’s Watson computer made splash on Jeopardy, and the Obama administration has already set aside $126 million for exascale supercomputing systems, which are said to process information 1,000 faster than a normal computer.

IBM’s vice president of technology policy Tim Sheehy took some time to chat with Post Tech about these emerging fields. Below is an edited version of our conversation:

We’ve all seen what Watson can do and have heard about its possibilities for health care. What other applications are there?

These machines can learn and compile information the way you and I do, whether it’s through visual information, spoken information or graphics. So any sector or discipline that you would want to have access to a lot of information at once could use Watson — the law, for example. Having access to all of the case law, the statutes, varying opinions properly organized would be an obvious application, and we will certainly see more. But health care is the most immediate application -- we see a future where all doctors would have access to machines that we have in Watson.

What about the other technologies? What exactly is nanotechnology and what are its applications?

Well, for one, we could have nano medicine: things like extrodinarily small storage devices, for example. Nanotechnology essentially lets you have a system on a chip. Nanomedicine is one application, one could target and find strains of bacteria, like a laser-guided missile for bacteria that’s resistant to antibiotics.

There will also be large applications for consumer goods in the future — we’ll probably see it go beyond medicine. This is an area in which we don’t have all the answers yet. I think medicine will be the most likely initial application.

What work are you doing with exascale supercomputing systems? Have you already applied it to any government work?

We’ve done what dome work in collaboration with Department of Energy’s laboratories. You could look at the energy grid of the whole U.S. and find ways to make it more resistant to failure. This lets us look at the next generation at order of magnitude bigger than anything we’ve had before. It’s an emerging technology that builds upon past systems and underlying technologies, but is aimed at futuristic problems.

What are the main applications of big data analysis?

The big data analytics piece is particularly good for government. They have a lot of data and can tap a good bit of it at the moment. But big data analytics lets you have all that data at your disposal in real time. We’ve already started to see applications of it. It’s very good for prevention of fraud or just finding mistakes in government program. Right now, we’re working with states such as New York to root out errors in their Medicare and Medicaid systems. We’ve been having success in applying complicated models of data streams to these systems. This is about squeezing as much of the data as you can.

It’s also useful for things like smarter transportation. Known technology we already have in the pipeline can predict traffic flow and traffic disruption. We’re using that in Rio de Janeiro, which has got both the Olympics and the World Cup coming up. Right now, we’re working with public safety officials to apply some of this stuff there.

What is the importance of having briefings like this?

The challenge is how do you make this real for congressman and staff, and figuring out how they see these technologies evolving. We hope it will make for an interesting and informative hour and a half.

Hayley Tsukayama covers consumer technology for The Washington Post.
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