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IBM's Ginni Rometty


Leading in the AI era

IBM Chairman, President and CEO Virginia (Ginni) Rometty believes artificial intelligence (AI), cloud, blockchain and quantum computing are strategic drivers of innovation going forward. Born in Chicago, she is the first female CEO to lead IBM’s nearly 400,000 employees. Under her leadership, the company has morphed from its Big Blue roots into a world leader in AI and cloud computing for business.

One key to IBM’s transformation is AI, in the form of IBM’s Watson, which leverages deep learning technologies. Watson is helping customers use AI-enhanced tech to solve business problems. The IBM cloud helps clients become disruptors in their fields by accessing innovative technologies like blockchain, IoT and even quantum, while also leveraging data wherever it resides. Ginni said, “If you learn exponentially, you become the disruptor versus the disrupted.” She added, “We are about to see the beginning of a new exponential shift. Take all the data and add AI to it, and that is how you get exponential learning.”

Ginni began her career at General Motors and then moved to IBM as a system engineer in 1981. She has since held many senior positions including leading the integration of PricewaterhouseCoopers Consulting and creating a global team of more than 100,000 business consultants and services experts. She is a passionate advocate for education and preparing society for the new era of data that is transforming how business is done. This includes equipping workers for “new collar” jobs in emerging technology fields.

She holds a Bachelor of Science degree in computer science and electrical engineering from Northwestern University, where she also was awarded an honorary degree. She has an honorary degree from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute as well. Ginni serves on the Council on Foreign Relations, the board of trustees of Northwestern University and the boards of overseers and managers of Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. She is also co-chair of the Aspen Institute’s Cyber Group. She recently talked with i3 about IBM’s plans.

What top technologies are transforming industries and how are they improving people’s lives?

A lot of the mainstream focus is on the big internet platforms – the companies that we see on our phones or browsers every day – and how that technology has changed our lives. But a more interesting and even more meaningful story is how businesses are being transformed by technology.

We see a major shift in how people work and how businesses and industries operate. It’s driven by technologies like cloud and AI and by the emergence of data as the world’s next great natural resource. As with all-natural resources, the value is in refining it.

What many people don’t appreciate is that only 20 percent of data today is searchable on the Web and accessible by big internet platforms. The other 80 percent belongs to the world’s large businesses and institutions. Harnessing that data, learning from it and using it to completely transform the way work is done and the way businesses operate, represents a massive competitive advantage.

And that’s what we’ve been up to at IBM, processing 75 percent of the word’s business data and helping the major businesses we serve – like 40 of the top retailers and 90 percent of all banks – harness new technologies and data to completely transform their businesses. I’ll give you a few examples.

ExxonMobil uses our cloud as the foundation for its Speedpass+ app to deliver greater levels of personalization, efficiency and security to customers and enable them to pay for fuel and car washes via their mobile device. By tapping into the IBM Cloud, the app can quickly process and analyze mobile transactions to put drivers back on the road faster. Additionally, a seamless integration with their loyalty program allows customers to collect rewards points with every fuel purchase.

Blockchain is being used to make our food safer, improve global trade, speed cross border payments, even certify that the diamond or gold jewelry you’re wearing is real and ethically produced. Today, IBM has more than 500 active blockchain clients. One of them, Seagate Technologies, a CTA member, is using the technology to reduce counterfeiting by uniquely identifying hard disk drives.

Goldcorp recently announced they are the first in their industry using IBM AI technology. They are using Watson to improve predictability for gold mineralization, helping explorers locate deposits in a fraction of the time and cost of traditional methods – yielding the predicted mineralization at the expected depth.

There is so much we are on the cusp of that technology will enable. It’s the beginning of a major shift – in how people work and how the systems of business power our lives. CES is a great opportunity to explore these new innovations transforming our lives, not just the ones we can hold in our hands.

IBM has taken an early lead in blockchain. What kind of challenges is this technology addressing and how can it help tech companies?

Blockchain is emerging as a profound force, not just in cryptocurrencies but in transforming how businesses view trusted transactions across many industries. The technology is catching on so quickly because it addresses a very basic issue: can you trust data on a network? That’s a critical and often costly question any time you have transactions involving the exchange of goods or value.

Blockchain technology creates a single, shared version of the truth, that no one member or entity owns or controls. That leads to increased trust and integrity in the flow of information among participants. More simply, it’s an entirely new operating system for trust, upon which all sorts of innovation can spring.

While most commonly known for enabling cryptocurrencies, many other applications are taking shape to authenticate and manage all manner of digital records: a share of stock, a title to property, provenance of food, health records – even digital identity. And it all happens in a distributed, fast, transparent, and secure way. By fundamentally changing the way we store, manage and share data in networks, we can put data back in our hands and strengthen and extend trust.

There are also strong consumer benefits to the growing use of blockchain. Some of the world’s largest retailers – through a consortium called Food Trust – are using IBM Blockchain to make the global food system safer. It used to take Walmart up to a week to track a package of mangoes back to the farm. With blockchain, it now takes Walmart 2.2 seconds. That speed and visibility can help ensure the safety of food sold in stores.

Can you discuss your trust and transparency principles for AI? How do we protect data and privacy?

I see data and AI as the opportunity of our time but also the issue of our time. There’s tremendous potential for these powerful forces to make our world a better, healthier and more productive place. But that transformation can only happen if businesses and consumers trust the companies putting data and AI to work.

People have legitimate concerns about who is collecting their data, when and why. They want to know how AI is affecting their world. As a result of some very high-profile mishandling of consumer data and manipulation of online platforms, we are seeing a real crisis when it comes to trust in technology.

IBM is a 107-year old business. The reason we’ve been successful for that long is because we know how to earn the trust of our clients. We have long followed guidelines around the responsible handling of data and the stewardship of new technology, and we published them a few years ago and invited others to adopt similar commitments.

In our principles, we make clear that the purpose of AI is to augment – not replace – human expertise; data and insights derived from it belong to their owners and creators (not their IT partners); and AI must be transparent and explainable so that people and businesses are not being asked to trust a black box. We realize, of course, that principles alone won’t address the trust crisis. That’s why we’re also putting our technology to work on the problem.

A new offering we’ve introduced called IBM AI OpenScale provides an unprecedented new level of transparency and trust to AI – irrespective of how the AI was built and where it runs. OpenScale lets business people – even those without deep technical or data science skills – look inside the AI “black box” to understand how AI makes decisions. It also continually monitors and corrects for bias to prevent unfair outcomes.

Finally, we recognize that governments around the world are considering whether and how to get involved. In the past, some within the tech industry have resisted regulation. But we believe that, given the state of trust today, “just say no” is no longer an acceptable stance.

We speak with government leaders on a regular basis, and our recommendation to them has been straightforward: fix the real problem. That means carefully targeting any regulation or legislation to the irresponsible handling of consumer data. It means using a scalpel, not a sledgehammer, that could hurt or derail the broader digital economy.

The key here, again, is trust. Companies must earn and strengthen it every day – as IBM has done. We must work together to get this right. The opportunities that data and AI have to offer are just too important and too positive for us not to.

How can people best build skills for jobs in this new era and what role should companies and educators play?

There are two important realities we all need to prepare for. First, AI is going to change 100 percent of jobs. I’m absolutely certain about that, and the transformation is going to touch every field and every role, including mine. Second, we’re moving into an era where learning will never stop. As individuals, it’s going to be increasingly important that we continually reinvent ourselves with new skills to match the ways technology changes how we work.

We know a thing or two about reinvention at IBM. We’ve done it countless times over more than a century to deliver the new technologies and skills our clients need, and we’ve done it again for the era of data, cloud and AI. A key part of that reinvention is a rethinking of our approach to training IBMers with the latest in-demand skills. We’re using AI to tailor that training and, to date, our employees together with some of our clients have earned more than one million digital badges. These micro-certifications cover in-demand skills that are relevant not just within IBM, but across companies and roles.

We’ve also rethought our approach to hiring and where we find talented professionals to join the company. One of the most exciting trends today being powered by technology is the reality that, in many well-paying roles, you need to have certain in-demand skills but not necessarily a bachelor’s degree. We call these new collar jobs. Not blue collar or white collar, but something new that’s opening the technology industry to more workers with diverse backgrounds. If you have the right skills, there’s a job for you at IBM.

These jobs are in fast-growing fields like cybersecurity, digital design and cloud computing. These are areas vital to IBM’s long-term success. New collar IBMers account for around 15 percent of our annual U.S. hiring. At some of our U.S. facilities, more than a third of IBMers don’t have a bachelor’s degree. But they have the skills, and that’s what matters.

At the same time, we have a role in preparing society for this future, as well. We’ve seen great success in apprenticeships – a time-tested approach to skills education. We launched a certified apprenticeship program last fall, and it’s grown twice as much as we expected. We’ve hired nurses and teachers who are now full-time IBMers working in software development and blockchain engineering. Starting in 2019, we expect to hire nearly 500 apprentices per year.

We have also pioneered a public high school program called Pathways in Technology Early College High School, or P-TECH. It’s a six-year program that lets students earn both a high school degree and no-cost associate degree, preparing them for jobs in science, technology, engineering and math.

Today, there are 120 P-TECH schools in 11 states and that will soon grow to 200. There’s a pipeline of 125,000 students coming through these schools, and we're expanding to 13 other countries. P-TECH’s on-time community college completion rate is 400 percent higher than the national average.

We’ve also launched programs that are training veterans of America’s armed forces in software that’s being used by some of our largest clients, so they can transition to great post-military careers. And we’re providing “returnship” programs to help women who have taken time away to raise families rejoin the workforce in great jobs.

At IBM, we’re on track to hire 25,000 U.S. workers through 2020, and that includes many new collar professionals and around 2,000 U.S. service veterans. We’re committed to making sure more people have the skills they need to land those jobs.

Cindy Loffler Stevens

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