Voices in AI – Episode 55: A Conversation with Rob High


About this Episode

Episode 55 of Voices in AI features host Byron Reese and Rob High talking about IBM Watson and the history and future of AI. Rob High is an IBM fellow, VP and Chief Technical Officer at IBM Watson.
Visit www.VoicesinAI.com to listen to this one-hour podcast or read the full transcript.

Transcript Excerpt

Byron Reese: This is Voices in AI, brought to you by GigaOm. I’m Byron Reese. August 12th, 1981. That was the day IBM released the IBM PC and who could have imagined what that would lead to? Who would’ve ever thought, from that vantage point, of our world today? Who could’ve imagined that eventually you would have one on every desktop and then they would all be connected? Who would have guessed that through those connections, trillions of dollars of wealth would be created? All the companies, you know, that you see in the news every day from eBay to Amazon to Google to Baidu to Alibaba, all of them have, in one way or the other, as the seed of their genesis, that moment on August 12th, 1981.
Now the interesting thing about that date, August of ‘81, that’s kind of getting ready to begin the school year, the end of the summer. And it so happens that our guest, Rob High graduated from UC Santa Cruz in 1981, so he graduated about the same time, just a few months before this PC device was released. And he went and joined up with IBM. And for the last 36/37 years, he has been involved in that organization affecting what they’re doing, watching it all happen, and if you think about it, what a journey that must be. If you ever pay your respects to Elvis Presley and see his tombstone, you’ll see it says, “He became a living legend in his own time.” Now, I’ll be the first to say that’s a little redundant, right? He was either a living legend or a legend in his own time. That being said, if there’s anybody who can be said to be a living legend in his own time, it’s our guest today. It’s Rob High. He is an IBM fellow, he is a VP at IBM, he is the Chief Technical Officer at IBM Watson and he is with us today. Welcome to the show, Rob!
Rob High: Yeah, thank you very much. I appreciate the references but somehow I think my kids would consider those accolades to be a little, probably, you know, not accurate.
Well, but from a factual standpoint, you joined IBM in 1981 when the PC was brand new.
Yeah – I’ve really been honored with having the opportunity to work on some really interesting problems over the years. And with that honor has come the responsibility to bring value to those problems, to the solutions we have for those problems. And for that, I’ve always been well-recognized. So I do appreciate you bringing that up. In fact, it really is more than just any one person in this world that makes changes meaningful.
Well, so walk me back to that. Don’t worry, this isn’t going to be a stroll down memory lane, but I’m curious. In 1981, IBM was of course immense, as immense as it is now and the PC had to be a kind of tiny part of that at that moment in time. It was new. When did your personal trajectory intercept with that or did it ever? Had you always been on the bigger system side of IBM?
No, actually. It was almost immediate. Probably was, I don’t know the exact number, but probably I was pretty close to the first one hundred or two hundred people that ordered a PC when it got announced. In fact, the first thing I did at IBM was to take the PC into work and show my colleagues what the potential was. I was just doing simple, silly things at the time, but I wanted to make an impression that this really was going to change the way that we were thinking about our roles at work and what technology was going to do to help change our trajectory there. So, no, I actually had the privilege of being there at the very beginning. I won’t say that I had the foresight to recognize its utility but I certainly appreciated it and I think that to some extent, my own career followed the trajectory of change that has occurred similar to what PCs did to us back then. In other areas as well: including web computing, and service orientation, now cloud computing, and of course cognitive computing.
And so, walk me through that and then let’s jump into Watson. So, walk me through the path you went through as this whole drama of the computer age unfolded around you. Where did you go from point to point to point through that and end up where you are now?
Listen to this one-hour episode or read the full transcript at www.VoicesinAI.com 
Byron explores issues around artificial intelligence and conscious computers in his new book The Fourth Age: Smart Robots, Conscious Computers, and the Future of Humanity.

Rob High talks Artificial Intelligence with Gigaom

Rob High
Rob High is an IBM Fellow, Vice President and Chief Technology Officer, IBM Watson. He has overall responsibility to drive Watson technical strategy and thought leadership. As a key member of the Watson Leadership team, Rob works collaboratively with the Watson engineering, research, and development teams across IBM.
Rob High will be speaking on the subject of artificial intelligence at Gigaom Change Leaders Summit in Austin, September 21-23rd. In anticipation of that, I caught up with him to ask a few questions about AI and it’s potential impact on the business world.
Byron Reese: Do you feel like we are on the path to building an AGI and if so, when do you think we will see it?
Rob High: Cognitive technologies, like Watson, apply reasoning techniques to domain-specific problems in things like Healthcare, Finance, Education, and Legal — anywhere there is an overwhelming amount of information that, if processed, can substantially improve the decisions or outcomes in that domain. For example, the work we’ve done with Oncologists to help them identify the most appropriate treatments for their cancer patients is based on having assessed what makes the patient unique; standard of care practices and clinical expertise that has been used to train the system; and the available clinical literature that can help doctors make better decisions. This helps to democratize that expertise to a wide swath of other doctors who do not have the benefit of having seen the thousands of patients that major cancer centers like Memorial Sloan Kettering or MD Anderson see.
The types of artificial intelligence used in these systems are spectacular in that they are able draw inferences from literature written in natural language, and to be taught how to interpret the meaning in that language as it applies to bringing the right information at the right time to the doctor’s fingertips. Unlike Artificial General Intelligence, our goal is to amplify human cognition — not to do our thinking for us, but to do the necessary research so that we can do our thinking better.
What do you make of all of the angst and concern being talked about in terms of why we should perhaps fear the AGI?

The concept of a machine-dominated world is inspired more by Hollywood and science fiction writers rather than technologists and AI researchers. IBM has been firmly committed to responsible science and ethical best practices for over a hundred years – it’s embedded in our DNA. Our focus is on applying cognitive computing to amplifying human cognitive processes, not on replacing them.
The reality is AI and cognitive technologies will help mankind better understand our world and make more informed decisions. Cognitive computing will always serve to bolster, not replace, human decision-making, working side-by-side with humans to accelerate and improve our ability to act with confidence and authority. The industries where Watson is being applied today – healthcare, law, financial services, oil & gas – exist to benefit people working in those industries.
For example, Watson augments a doctor’s abilities by aggregating and producing the best available information to inform medical decisions and democratizing expertise. But it’s the human doctor who takes the information Watson produces and combines it with their own knowledge of a patient and the complex issues associated with each diagnosis. Ultimately, the doctor makes the recommendation, informed by Watson, and the patient makes the decision – so there will always be a complementary relationship between human and machine.
Do you think computers can or will become conscious?
Today, we are making significant advances in integrating embodied cognition into robotics through Watson and that remains a primary focus. Our technology currently allows robots to – like humans – show expression, understand the nuances of certain interactions and respond appropriately. There’s still a need to teach robots certain skills, like the skill of movement, the skill of seeing, the skill of recognizing the difference between a pot of potatoes that are boiling versus a pot of potatoes that are boiling over.
However, we do believe that we’re only in the first few years of a computing era that will last for decades to come. We are currently assessing what’s doable, what’s useful and what will have economic interest in the future.
Great. We’ll leave it there. Thank you for taking the time to talk today.
Rob High will be speaking on the subject of artificial intelligence at Gigaom Change Leaders Summit in Austin, September 21-23rd.

IBM goes outside the company for a new chief digital officer

Bob Lord, the former AOL president whose ascent to AOL CEO was derailed by the sale to Verizon, is returning to his Razorfish digital roots and taking the reins of digital at IBM.
In an indication of the time we are in, the news was first broken on Twitter, by IBM’s David Kenny:
Screen Shot 2016-04-04 at 10.59.59 AM
Arik Hesseldahl reports,

In a statement circulated to IBM employees, the company said Lord will “accelerate and scale all aspects of IBM’s digital presence, operations and ecosystem,” and will run its its digital platform, digital sales and marketing and its developer ecosystem.

Chief Digital Officers are often called in to create a digital transformation, not just running digital operations. I guess it’s clear that IBM needs such a transformation, in order to get more agile in just about the most rapidly shifting market in the world: enterprise technologies.
I’m going to have to try to connect with Lord, and see what his charter actually is.

originally posted on medium.com/@stoweboyd

SAP to trim jobs and redeploy resources

Enterprise software giant SAP could cut up to 2,200 jobs (three percent of its 74,000 employees) in a move to rebalance employment around growth areas. The news was first reported by Bloomberg News.

[company]SAP[/company] CEO Bill McDermott told Bloomberg that the company needs to put jobs where the work is.

 “If I have a great growth opportunity in Middle East and I have excess of capacity in U.S. or Germany, I am gonna offer those employees the opportunity to go to Middle East, to where customers need us … We are not eliminating jobs but lifting and shifting those assets.”

A spokesman confirmed the news but said 2,200 was the upper limit and that many affected employees could end up in other positions in the faster-growing HANA or cloud business segments. Some jobs may go away via attrition. He said the company will end the year with more employees than it started out with: “SAP is hiring.”

Still, the axe will fall for some, in what would be the second set of cutbacks since McDermott assumed the top spot at SAP in 2013. The first round of cuts came in May 2014 in a move that McDermott said would bring total headcount to 67,000 by year’s end, so clearly some hiring took place in the interim.

SAP is hardly the only enterprise IT company struggling with the new sales and cost models of the cloud computing and Software-as-a-Service world. IBM and HP have both announced layoffs and employee reassignments to try to get their cost structures in line. IBM sounded a very similar message to SAP earlier this year, confirming layoffs but also stressing that its hiring in hot areas.

Part of the problem is that [company]IBM[/company], [company]HP[/company] and other older companies have relied on selling on high-end, high-margin software and hardware tied to big up-front purchases. The SaaS revolution, which spread payments out over time and offered less expensive (at least initially) products, took its toll on these players as born-to-SaaS companies like [company]Salesforce.com[/company] started to eat their lunch.

Now, even though those SaaS companies have moved more to an enterprise sales model — requiring up-front payouts for a year or more of use — they are still seen as more cost-effective and more modern than the legacy guys.

The Hadoop wars, HP cloud(s) and IBM’s big win

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If you are confused about Hewlett-Packard’s cloud plan of action, this week’s guest will lay it out for you. Bill Hilf, the SVP of Helion product management, makes his second appearance on the show (does that make him our Alec Baldwin?) to talk about HP’s many-clouds-one-management layer strategy.

The lineup? Helion Eucalyptus for private clouds which need Amazon Web Services API compatibility; Helion OpenStack for the rest and [company]HP[/company] Cloud Development Platform (aka Cloud Foundry) for platform as a service.  Oh and there’s HP Public Cloud which I will let him tell you about himself.

But first Derrick Harris and I are all over IBM’s purchase of AlchemyAPI, the cool deep learning startup that does stuff like identifying celebs and wanna-be celebs from their photos. It’s a win for [company]IBM [/company]because all that coolness will be sucked into Watson and expand the API set Watson can parlay for more useful work. (I mean, winning Jeopardy is not really a business model, as IBM Watson exec Mike Rhodin himself has pointed out.) 

At first glance it might seem that a system that can tell the difference between Will Ferrell and Chad Smith might be similarly narrow, but after consideration you can see how that fine-grained, self-teaching technology could find broader uses.

AlchemyAPI CEO Elliot Turner and IBM Watson sales chief Stephen Gold shared the stage at Structure Data last year. Who knows what deals might be spawned at this year’s event?


Also we’re happy to follow the escalating smack talk in the Hadoop arena as Cloudera CEO Tom Reilly this week declared victory over the new [company]Hortonworks[/company]-IBM-Pivotal-backed Open Data Platform effort which we’re now fondly referring to as the ABC or “Anyone But Cloudera” alliance.

It’s a lively show so have a listen and (hopefully) enjoy.


Hosts: Barb Darrow, Derrick Harris and Jonathan Vanian

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Mark Cuban on net neutrality: the FCC can’t protect competition. 

Microsoft’s machine learning guru on why data matters sooooo much 

No, you don’t need a ton of data to do deep learning 

VMware wants all those cloud workloads “marooned” in AWS

Don’t like your cloud vendor? Wait a second.




Xen security issue prompts Amazon, Rackspace cloud reboots

Amazon Web Services and Rackspace are warning their customers of upcoming reboots they’re taking to address a new Xen hypervisor security issue.

In a premium support bulletin issued Thursday night, Amazon said fewer than 10 percent of all EC2 instances will require work but the affected instances must be updated by March 10. [company]Rackspace[/company] also notified customers of the issue, which will affect a subset of a portion of its First and Next Generation Cloud Servers, Thursday night. Later on Friday, Linode also warned users of an upcoming Xen-related reboot.

If you’re sensing a little bit of deja vu, it’s because the major cloud players were forced to reboot a bunch of their customers in September due to a Xen hypervisor issue, although the reason for the updates was not disclosed at first. Last time out, AWS also said 10 percent of its EC2 instances were affected.

Cloud vendors impacted by these security issues tread a tricky path. They have to address the vulnerability as fast as possible before the details of the flaw are made public, which can lead to a bit of a fire drill. In this case, more information about the flaw will be disclosed March 10.

In September, [company]Amazon[/company] was first out of the chute with notifications, followed by Rackspace and then IBM Softlayer made its disclosures the following week.

Note: This story was updated at 3:49 p.m. PST to note that Linode is also performing system updates.

CIA’s secret Amazon cloud ready to roll

The Amazon Web Services-based cloud for the CIA is near completion, according to the CIA’s chief information officer (CIO).

On Wednesday, Doug Wolfe told a Cloudera industry gathering that the agency’s long-awaited AWS cloud has hit “final operational capability”  after 18 months of work, EnterpriseTech reported.

[company]Amazon[/company] famously prevailed with its  bid for this CIA cloud contract in late 2012 when it beat out [company]IBM[/company] even though it bid a higher dollar amount.  This $600 million deal was huge for AWS, which wants to show security- and compliance-conscious industries that its public cloud infrastructure can meet their special needs.

Since 2011, Amazon had already fielded GovCloud, a separate cloud region that meets special criteria so it can be used by government agencies. The CIA has additional requirements above and beyond that.

Wolfe also said the new cloud would be rolled out across 17 different intelligence agencies (news to me), and that the agency would have Cloudera’s enterprise data hub, running on the AWS service within months, according to the story.


Watson-powered toy blows past Kickstarter goal in a day

First it was Jeopardy!, then it was cancer, e-commerce and cooking. Now, IBM’s Watson artificial intelligence system is powering a line of connected toys.

And it looks as if people are impressed with the idea: A company called Elemental Path launched a Kickstarter campaign on Monday for a line of toy dinosaurs, called CogniToys, and had surpassed its initial goal as of Tuesday morning. The company was aiming for $50,000 and had raised more than $70,000 as of 11:40 a.m. Tuesday.

Essentially, the dinosaurs are connected toys that speak to IBM’s Watson cloud APIs, which the company began rolling out last year. According to the Kickstarter page, the CogniToys will allow children to engage with them by talking — asking question, telling jokes, sharing stories and the like. In addition, the page states, “The technology allows toys to listen, speak and simultaneously evolve, learn and grow with your child; bringing a new element of personalized, educational play to children.”


Elemental Path is not the first company focused on building natural language and artificial intelligence into toys. Possibly the best-known example so far is a startup called ToyTalk, which is building natural language iPad apps and was founded by former Pixar CTO Oren Jacob.

The evolution of artificial intelligence, and the ability to easily train toys, robots, apps or anything, really, is going to be a major focus of Gigaom’s Structure Intelligence conference September 22–23 in San Francisco. We’ll also talk a lot about machine learning and AI at our Structure Data conference March 18–19 in New York, where speakers from Facebook, Yahoo, Spotify and elsewhere will discuss how data in the form of images, text, and even sounds are allowing them to build new products and discover new insights about their users.

Now IBM is teaching Watson Japanese

IBM has struck a deal SoftBank Telecom Corporation to bring the IBM Watson artificial intelligence (or, as IBM calls it, cognitive computing) system to Japan. The was announced on Tuesday.

Watson has already been trained in Japanese, so now it’s matter of getting its capabilities into production via specialized systems, apps or even robots running Watson APIs. As in the United States, early focus areas include education, banking, health care, insurance and retail.

[company]IBM[/company] has had a somewhat difficult time selling Watson, so maybe the Japanese market will help the company figure out why. It could be that the technology doesn’t work as well or as easily as advertised, or it could just be that American companies, developers and consumers aren’t ready to embrace so many natural-language-powered applications.

The deal with SoftBank isn’t the first time IBM has worked to teach a computer Japanese. The company is also part of a project with several Japanese companies and agencies, called the Todai Robot, to build a system that runs on a laptop and can pass the University of Tokyo entrance exam.

We’ll be talking a lot about artificial intelligence and machine that can learn at our Structure Data conference in March, with speakers from Facebook, Spotify, Yahoo and other companies. In September, we’re hosting Gigaom’s inaugural Structure Intelligence conference, which will be all about AI.

Microsoft woos Y Combinator startups with big Azure credits

Microsoft wants to boost its cloud’s profile among startups so it’s making $500,000 in Azure credits available to Y Combinator-backed companies.

The credits start rolling with the Winter 2015 class and will continue after that, according to this Y Combinator blog post. This can be a good number of companies — there were 106 companies in the Spring and Winter 2014 classes, for example.

Cloud credits are ubiquitous — Y Combinator has special hosting offers from [company]Amazon[/company], [company]Google[/company], [company]Rackspace[/company] and now [company]Microsoft[/company], according to Y Combinator president Sam Altman. But, $500K is a big number. (Oh, and the startups will also get three years of Office 365 subscription, “access to Microsoft developer staff,” plus a year of CloudFlare and DataStax services.

Qualified startups can typically get $1,000 to $15,000 in Amazon Web Services (AWS) credits, and there are other freebies available. Then, in September, things started going a bit haywire. Google started offering $100,000 in Google Cloud Platform credits to qualified startups. Two months later [company]IBM[/company] upped the ante to  $120,000 in credit for SoftLayer infrastructure or BlueMix PaaS. Again all for “qualified” startups.

This is a strategic gambit for Microsoft, which wants to get more young companies — many of which are probably not Windows focused — to check out Azure. It’s also a way to chip away at [company]Amazon[/company] Web Services’ prodigious lead among startups. AWS is pretty much the default cloud selection for young companies.

This story was updated at 5:24 a.m. PST February 11 to reflect that AWS typically provides qualified startups with up to $15K in promotional funding.