How Data is Opening Doors for the Next Generation

By Rod Adkins
Rod Adkins, Senior Vice President, Corporate Strategy, IBM
Rod Adkins, Senior Vice President, Corporate Strategy, IBM

Earlier this month, I had the privilege of delivering the fall commencement address for my alma mater, Georgia Tech. More importantly, I also had the pleasure of watching my youngest son receive his diploma. This generational juxtaposition gave me an opportunity to highlight the ways in which my son and his fellow graduates will create innovations for a smarter planet that prior generations like mine could only dream of.

Data has become this generation’s new natural resource and, when combined with a new era of computing, it will enable today’s graduates to create previously unimaginable advances in whatever fields they choose to pursue.

In the early 1900s, Henry Ford had resources such as electricity and oil, and created the first affordable, mass-produced automobile; an innovation that permanently changed transportation. In the 1950s, Thomas Watson of IBM had resources such as the transistor and software, and created one of the first general-purpose electronic computers; an innovation that dramatically improved business productivity. And in the 2000s, Steve Jobs had resources such as wireless and natural human technologies for touch and voice and created the iPhone; an innovation that helped unleash the pervasiveness of mobile access to information.

While some of today’s graduates might fear that ‘everything has already been invented,’ I would argue that they have opportunities that far surpass those of previous generations.  Because this generation has the greatest resource of all time: data.

Rod Adkins, IBM Senior Vice President, Corporate Strategy,  during his commencent address to Georgia Tech in early December.
Rod Adkins, IBM Senior Vice President, Corporate Strategy, during his commencent address to Georgia Tech in early December.

Data is being generated from the mobile devices and social applications that today’s graduates grew up with, and from sensors in the every-day objects that surround them, like household appliances, cars and traffic lights. And this machine-to-machine data is now creating a context multiplier effect, where data creates new data. When you add it all up, the total amount of data in the world is projected to double every twenty months.  This means that by 2020, it is estimated that there will be over 5,000 gigabytes of data (the equivalent of over 5 million books) for every person on the planet.

Thankfully, a new era of computing is advancing to analyze all of this data, even as it becomes increasingly unstructured (e.g. videos and images) and instantaneous (e.g. texts and tweets). Cognitive systems, as they’ve come to be called, can keep up with this ‘big data’ because they are systems that learn; they no longer rely on programming alone. A good example is Watson, the IBM system that bested the top champions on the trivia game show Jeopardy! and has now gone on to tackle tougher problems in areas like medicine, finance and retail.

The combination of big data and cognitive systems will be the game changer for this generation of graduates, enabling them to create incredible new innovations in any field they choose to pursue.

Take, for example, the field of healthcare, where Watson can help today’s graduates analyze data from new research, medical reports and patient records to make faster and more accurate diagnoses. Or in agriculture, a supercomputer called Deep Thunder can help today’s graduates analyze data from weather, soil and crops to optimize when and how to plant and harvest. Or in government and public safety, a system called BLUECrush can help today’s graduates analyze data from police records, environmental conditions and nearby events to help prevent crimes before they happen. Or even in the culinary arts, a Digital Gastronomy system can help today’s graduates analyze data from billions of ingredient combinations to create recipes that have never been tried before.

These are just a few examples of why we should feel confident in the next generation’s ability to innovate in ways that surpass those of previous generations. Empowered by the new natural resource of big data, and the cognitive systems to analyze it, today’s graduates have a unique opportunity to build a smarter planet for generations to come.

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This story originally appeared as an op-ed in the December 20 issue of the Atlanta Business Chronicle.

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