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Dr. William R. LaFontaine Headshot

Collaboration is the Key to Addressing Tomorrow's Grandest Challenges

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Coming from IBM Research, I think of innovation in two dimensions. First, there is the continuous innovation that goes into IBM's products and services. This innovation provides important advances to current technology as well as helps IBM introduce breakthrough products. The benefits of this approach are clear in IBM's next-generation computing platform PureSystems.

But we also look for more exploratory challenges that help us advance science by leaps and bounds. We call them grand challenges. Meeting them requires a very different set of practices and capabilities -- and presents some interesting problems.

And that was the topic today as the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation in Washington, DC hosted a forum with the White House's Office of Science and Technology Policy, IBM and Qualcomm to discuss how we can meet the next Grand Challenges.

So, what makes a grand challenge? It must be difficult, inspiring and risky. These are scientific game-changers by nature -- with broad implications for industry and society alike. Some call them 'moon shots.'

And as the Apollo program of the 1960s proved, grand challenges often demand new, cross-discipline thinking and rich models of collaboration among various institutions.

Creating a computer that could compete against human chess champions was a grand challenge. Since the late 1960s popular wisdom suggested it would be impossible for a computer to ever beat a human grand chess master. The Deep Blue computer's winning match against Gary Kasparov in 1997 was a landmark in showing that we understood computing technology enough to take on the task -- one we thought was restricted to human intelligence.

The late 1990's saw a grand challenge of another kind. In 1997, the Japanese government announced plans to build the world's most powerful supercomputer -- the 'Earth Simulator.' In 1999, IBM announced plans to build a new class of high performance computing system that would be even more powerful. BlueGene would go on to, among many other things, crack the complex problem of protein folding. The project represented a deep collaboration between IBM, the Department of Energy and the agency's National Nuclear Security Administration -- in a shared mission to apply the new technology at extreme scales in a highly energy-efficient manner. And in 2004, it would become the world's most powerful supercomputer.

Our newest grand challenge is of course the IBM Watson computer. In the mid-2000s it had become increasingly clear that deep search and deep analytics were becoming a challenge for commercial computers. Watson was developed to tackle question/answer problems on the largest of scales -- and it famously showcased that capability in its Jeopardy! victory.

We continue to pursue this challenge today, extending Watson's capabilities to industry, medicine and science. This requires deep collaboration with domain experts like Citi and the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center.

These models of collaboration are quickly becoming the standard for tackling today's grand challenges. This is why we work closely with our partners as well as encourage our own researchers to work across disciplines. These are the things that produce the big breakthroughs -- and are the blueprint for addressing the grand challenges of tomorrow.

IBM created a culture that embraces the idea of tackling the most difficult challenges. It's been a priority for us no matter the business environment, so when necessary, we made the tough choices that allowed us to continue investing in the future.

By working together, with both private and public entities to drive research and innovation, we will continue to tackle the world's largest problems, transforming society and making the world work better.

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