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September 02, 2008

San Jose Mercury News Article

Today, San Jose Mercury News carried an article by Mike Cassidy entitled: "At IBM Almaden Research Center, it's eyes on the prize". The article highlights the magical place that IBM Almaden Research Center is, and covers my group's work on Cognitive Computing. See link to the original article here.

"I swear I could feel myself getting smarter as I drove through the parched hills and gnarled oaks on my way to IBM's Almaden Research Center.

The hillside campus is something of an intellectual Olympus — a glass and green granite repository that radiates brilliance from some of the smartest technologists in Silicon Valley. The 400 researchers there are prized for the way they think.

Which is different. (Sorry, Apple.)

"They are the kids that like to take things apart. They don't know why. They just like to take them apart," says Mark Dean, former director of the Almaden lab and now IBM's vice president of technical strategy and global operations for research. "They have an innate curiosity."

The researchers at Almaden are technological poets, thinkers inspired by a muse or a distraction, the sort of visionary people who ask "what if" about possibilities that might leave the rest of us asking "huh?"

They are a different breed — the kind of people who make me wonder, "Why?"

Why do they spend their time with their heads in the clouds — as in cloud computing — and in the thick of figuring out how to best make sense out of the global torrent of digital information being collected on financial markets, climate change, security threats and on and on? Why do they study methods to control the way electrons spin? Why are they moving atoms from one place to another? Why are they trying to reverse-engineer the human brain and build a computer that will function the way our minds do?

What is it about someone that compels them to set out into the unknown to search for an answer that might not exist?

"For me, it was just that working here doesn't feel like work," says Sebastian Loth, a postdoctoral researcher. "You can ask questions. 'Why are things the way they are?' You get a profound feeling for why the sky is blue."

And so Loth, who at 29 looks 19, spends his days in a windowless room stacked with electronic consoles and a spaghetti of cables and cords. His work — moving atoms from one spot to another — is undetectable by the human eye. Sure, the team he is on might one day create a stunning breakthrough in the area of miniaturizing computer storage. But the key thing? If you could move an atom, why wouldn't you?

"You want to stumble on something, basically," Dean says of IBM's most far-out research. "Because that's what happens. And most of the time what you're looking for is not what you discover."

Of course IBM is a business. (Maybe you've heard.) The company spends about $6 billion a year on research, and it does expect something back. Research ideas are vetted in any number of ways and approved by managers before they go forward. Two-thirds of the company's research is aimed at yielding a product to sell in relatively short order. But the other third? Who knows?

Dharmendra Modha's work on building a massive computer that will simulate the workings of a human brain might never add to IBM's bottom line. He happens to think it will, but that's not why he does what he does.

"I see a possibility," he says of his project combining neuroscience and computer science. "And I feel that if I don't manifest that possibility into reality, maybe nobody will."

A human brain-like computer is years away and Modha doesn't know whether he will ever get there.

But at the top of the hill in Almaden, it's not about the destination. It's about what you discover along the way."

Did I mention that we are hiring post-doctoral researchers? Smile See below!