Inside the Big Blue labs: IBM's impact on businesses and society

Written by Sudhir Chowdhary | Updated: Oct 14 2013, 16:51pm hrs
IBMIBM has used its research laboratories in India to develop solutions for its clients as well as gain new insights about the present and future needs of emerging markets.
IBM has had a long history of creating innovations that have an impact on businesses and society. This has ranged from helping the Apollo space missions land on the moon to innovations we use in our everyday lives, such as LASIK eye surgery, automated teller machines and Watson supercomputer being used to improve diagnosis and treatment of major health problems. Big Blue has used its research laboratories in New Delhi and Bangalore to develop solutions for its clients as well as gain new insights about the present and future needs of emerging markets. A slew of innovations developed in India are all set to be introduced into global markets

A very calm and pleasant environment prevails at the IBM Research facility, set amidst lush greenery and foliage in the Vasant Kunj Institutional Area of South Delhi. The peace of this sprawling campus is only disturbed by the noise caused by planes landing at IGI Airport. But make no mistake, inside the red brick building, researchers employed by the worlds biggest technology services company are constantly pushing the boundaries of science, technology and business to make the world work better. Hundreds of experts work with a razor-sharp focus in the areas of business analytics and mathematical science, mobile technology, systems research, productivity tools and software engineering, smarter planet solutionsat India Research Laboratory (IRL) in New Delhi and Bangalore, among the 12 laboratories worldwide that make up IBM Research. These researchers might look straight out of Indias leading scientific and technical institutes, but show the Big Blues long-term, strategic commitment to innovation and demonstrate the patience to allow scientific discovery to find its way into the market. Clearly the strategy is workinga slew of innovations developed in India are all set to be introduced into global markets.

Vibes, an enterprise software solution developed by the India Research Laboratory, empowers chief marketing officers with insights derived from analysing social interaction patterns. Vibes finds like-minded communities by analysing social interactions and cross-references available on member purchase history to make the perfect offer to the right person at the right time. IBM Research India associate director Ravi Kothari says, This software has been developed to help chief marketing officers target consumers and communities that care about and participate in their industry. Individuals are identified by analysing their interaction on social networks, and then cross-referenced with their purchase history with the company, or information about their interests based on other social networking activity. For example, a retailer can research past purchases of its Facebook fans to better determine what special offers to make to them.

These online communities (such as Facebook groups) have the unique characteristic in that they have well-connected members with similar tastes. Such communities provide an alternative to the traditional micro-segments of age, gender, location or other profile attributes, (or even purchase history based micro-segments), with the added power of strong social interaction.

Another innovation, IBM on Edge Analytics, connects people with contextual information. Once a user has opted in for the service, the tool cross-references the users location with the users activity to provide useful insights. As users conduct daily transactions, such as buying airline tickets or shopping at the mall, the system sends relevant promotions by email and mobile alerts, based on the users preferences. An early adopter of the technology, IndusInd Bank in India, has embedded IBM Edge Analytics within its customer channels, such as internet banking, ATM, SMS alerts, phone banking and branch offices. In addition to helping the bank better understand its own customers, the technology is helping it reach non-customers.

Established in 1998, IBM Research India works on projects that are driven by real-world impact, informs Kothari, who is also a member of IBM Academy of Technology. It has been advancing information technology through research in software and services, and providing leadership by delivering innovations to IBMs clients. With locations in New Delhi and Bangalore, the lab is focused on a wide array of projects in exploratory and applied research. The presence of IBM Research in India gives IBM the opportunity to gain new insights about the present and future needs of emerging markets, as well as enhance our relationships with businesses and governments in India, he informs.

For more than sixty years, IBM Research has been the innovation engine of the Armonk, New York-based technology company. From helping the Apollo space missions land on the moon to the discovery of fractals; from the technology behind laser eye surgery to a question answering computer called Watson now being applied to healthcare, IBM Research continues to define the future of technology.

In concrete terms, patenting is an important barometer of that innovation, and IBM has topped the annual list of US patent recipients for the 20th consecutive year. From 1993-2012, IBM inventors received nearly 67,000 US patents, and in 2012 alone, received a record 6,478 patents, exceeding the combined totals of Accenture, Amazon, Apple, EMC, HP, Intel, Oracle/SUN and Symantec. Last year, IBM patents covered a range of areas, including, analytics, big data, cyber security, cloud, mobile, social networking and software defined environments, as well as industry solutions for retail, banking, healthcare, and transportation.

Another breakthrough innovation from India has been the Social Media Event Tracker Tool (SMETT). This leverages natural language processing, text mining technology and advanced analytics to comb through millions of public social network messages to derive meaningful insights. Retailers, for example, can use SMETT to find out what people think about their products. The tools ability to quickly derive insight about numerous related topics could help a retailer find out why a product is popular or improve its online customer service.

Among others, researchers at IBM Research India have created BlueZen, a platform where dynamic context attributes can be captured using the smartphone; blended with information from social, digital and physical world sources and fed into smarter commerce platforms. For example, a valued customer who has been waiting in a queue at a retail store can be identified and attended to by the nearest customer service representative with the help of BlueZen.

Last but not the least is Spoken Web, a technology to enable the illiterate and the underprivileged with the power of information by using mobile phones (since it is well known that mobile phone penetration is much more than computer/ internet penetration in developing countries). This is a system for creating and accessing VoiceSites (analogous to websites), VoiLinks (analogous to hyperlinks) etc. to potentially create a spoken network of information. A VoiceSite can be accessed through any phone (even a landline) without a need to own a computer or knowing how to read and write. Spoken Web has been deployed through several pilots in different parts of the world with tens of thousands of users using the system. Though primarily meant for the under-served in population in emerging economies, it has several applications for the developed world as well, informs Kothari.

IBM is one among a few IT companies that looked at India as a strategic market for R&D. There is no doubt that the company has efficiently used its research laboratories to work on projects that are driven by real-world impact. Its brightest minds are definitely geared up to explore new ideas and invent new solutions to challenging problems, creating new growth opportunities for IBM.