IBM chief exec reveals future of AI in enterprise post Watson Health
Applying AI to ‘life or death’ decision-making may have cost IBM its early lead as a machine learning pioneer, the firm’s CEO Arvind Krishna has admitted, but Big Blue’s expertise still has an important role to play in combating climate change.
Krishna – who was appointed head of the blue chip tech firm in April 2020 – said that the topic of climate change was “imperative” to IBM, which has committed to going net zero, without offsets, by 2030.
The chief exec, who was responsible for setting up the company’s pioneering Watson Research labs in 1990, said that AI could be key in helping to create tech that combats the effects of climate change – provided that the data gathered to power it was spotless.
In an interview with Time magazine last week, he said: “As you begin to apply AI into this, the whole question is, how good is your data collection? Because if you cannot get all the right data, you could be massively under- or overestimating how good you are.”
In January IBM acquired sustainability data analytics provider Envizi, to add to its offerings that help companies measure environmental impact across the entire supply chain.
The chief executive hinted that other measures the tech giant was considering included discovering materials that were more efficient at helping to extract and store carbon dioxide, as well as looking at better ways of conserving the current 30% of energy which is wasted every year.
“Can we optimise and get rid of that waste that will produce so much benefit for all of us?” he asked.
Krishna also said that it was IBM’s “civic duty” to ensure that the tools it created in this area were all open source, to help others get started with businesses around green tech.
“Can we harness the spirit of open source? Can we create programs that incentivize people to create technology to help on climate change, using artificial intelligence?” he added.
After a decade of stagnation one of Krishna’s challenges at the helm of IBM has been to steer the firm back to growth.
Since assuming his position as CEO the long-serving computer engineer has been the architect of over 20 acquisitions (starting with RedHat in October 2020) and in the Time article he stated that the firm was aiming for 5% growth this year.
There have also been some sales too. Earlier this year IBM offloaded Watson Health to private equity firm Francisco partners.
The business aimed to transform healthcare via cloud, data, analytics, and AI solutions, but some users complained that there wasn’t enough data available for the program to make good recommendations or to deal with the complexity of patient files.
For his part, Krishna said that he was still proud that they managed to get AI “out of the lab and into the world” although he admitted that in the early to mid-2010s “the market wasn’t quite ready for AI”.
He added that, with the benefit of hindsight, the firm should have first gone after markets that were “less critical than health”.
He added: “Those who succeeded began to apply [AI] more in areas where it could be useful – you know, if you make a slightly wrong recommendation for a book, or a movie or a website, that’s not life and death.”
“Now, that said, you learn and you course-correct. Maybe we can help a quick-serve restaurant automate their auto-tagging. Maybe we can help enterprise applications be much friendlier. You need to start in areas that are much more contained, not making life and death decisions.”
“Let’s get people to trust it. And then you can begin to scale like crazy.”
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