Looking for the Elephant in the Room


IBM Fellow Hillery Hunter compares her team’s work to the Indian parable of blind men investigating an elephant: Each blind man feels a different part of the elephant body … [but] their descriptions are in complete disagreement on what an elephant is.

Hillery, Director of Accelerated Cognitive Infrastructure in IBM Research, believes that “Despite initial disagreement, if the people in the parable are given enough time they can share enough information to piece together a pretty accurate collective picture of an elephant.”

The parable describes the problem Hillery’s team is solving and provides context for the promising early results they have achieved in image recognition with deep learning. “Deep learning is a widely used AI method to help computers understand and extract meaning from images and sounds through which humans experience much of the world.”

In other words, Hillery and her team’s Deep Learning software helps computers help people recognize the elephants in front of them. (Or—to use a more practical example—helps computers help doctors more quickly and accurately detect cancer cells in medical images.) The technology holds promise to fuel breakthroughs in everything from consumer mobile app experiences to medical imaging diagnostics.

Hillery research
Hillery and her research team demonstrated breakthrough Deep Learning technology, which can enable faster, more accurate analysis of medical images, improved fraud detection and enhanced speech recognition in mobile, AI assistant, and enterprise AI applications.

Hillery presents another aspect of her work to which the elephant parable is equally relevant: teamwork and scientific breakthroughs. She describes her collaborative teams as, “Taking what were historically disjointed technical areas and breaking down those barriers so we can get better solutions.”

When asked to share practical advice for breaking down barriers, she replies, “I encourage folks to work to understand the language and the problems of your collaborators.” She recommends first investigating collaborators’ fields by reading technical literature, finding videos of respected speakers and even taking online courses.

Once collaborators are using the same language to talk about—for example—an elephant, “I try to get people talking about the things they consider to be the hard problems.” If you can apply your team’s experience and perspective to your collaborators’ most pressing problems, Hillery says, you’ll often find you can quickly provide value in the collaboration, which builds trust.

Regarding patents, Hillery has advice for new inventors: “Find a mentor to shepherd the patent process a couple of times until you’re comfortable with it. In most areas there’s an inventor you know, even if you didn’t know they were an inventor.”

Read more about Hillery’s thoughts and experience on How Teamwork Can Help Foster Scientific Breakthroughs.

Hillery Hunter is an IBM Fellow, and a Director for Accelerated Cognitive Infrastructure in IBM Research. She is based at IBM’s T.J. Watson Research Center in Yorktown Heights, NY. Her team focuses on finding next-generation performance opportunities for heterogeneous systems and defining and leveraging next-generation memory technology. 

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