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Inventing the future

IBM has re-imagined itself as much more than a maker of computer hardware. Its emphasis now is on research to create new technologies.

By DAVE GUSSOW
© St. Petersburg Times
published January 6, 2003


YORKTOWN HEIGHTS, N.Y. -- At first glance, the office of tomorrow looks a lot like today's: a cubicle with a desk, computer, phone and chairs.

The future high-tech touches are mostly hidden from view in a prototype at the IBM research facility here so it won't overwhelm workers when it goes from a demo to reality.

Otherwise, researcher Jennifer Lai said, "You'd spend your whole time sitting in this office going, 'It feels different, it feels weird, this is strange, this is not what I'm used to.' "

But there is much that is different in this prototype office being developed by IBM and Steelcase Inc., the nation's largest supplier of office furniture.

For starters, the office knows when you arrive each day, thanks to coding in your employee badge, and turns on the lights. There's a separate touch-screen computer in the office that controls everything from the temperature to "white noise" to block out distractions. Colored lights overhead signal whether it's a bad time for co-workers to barge in for a chat. And every cubicle has a "view" thanks to a projector that can display a favorite scene on the wall, then switch to a blowup of a budget document.

Tomorrow's office is only one of the ideas floating around IBM's massive research centers. Among the others: cars without drivers, planes without pilots and computers without glitches.

Technology giant IBM invests hugely in research. Its $5.7-billion research and development budget apparently is the largest for any tech company (software titan Microsoft spends about $5-billion). It has about 3,400 researchers in eight labs in six countries.

"Part of IBM's business transformation is to try to take new innovations in technology and accelerate those into the marketplace," said Jay Murdock, whose title is manager of mobile/pervasive solutions. "A lot of that innovation, which would have gone into academic papers and conferences in the past, is now purposely being driven into actual engagements with customers."

The new voice-activated navigation system being offered as an option in Honda automobiles? Antelope Technology's upcoming 9-ounce computer? T. Rowe Price's system that allows customers to manage their accounts by phone? All IBM technology.

Projects can range from the small -- a rotating switch for MP3 music players so users don't accidentally turn them on -- to the big: development of a supercomputer that one day may help unlock the mystery of some diseases.

The transformation engineered by former chairman Louis Gerstner took IBM from a company known for computer hardware to one focusing on services, software, consulting and research. Instead of cranking out its own products, though, IBM will license most of its technology and let others produce and market it. And it has begun to aggressively market and sell its research services to customers as part of its corporate makeover.

A lot of the work starts at the research centers. Two are not far from New York City, nestled in woods and rolling hills in Westchester County. The atmosphere is like that of a college campus. Deer graze on the grounds at the facility in Somers, N.Y.

But it's all business inside. In the cafeteria, knives, forks and spoons aren't the only utensils. IBM leaves scrap paper and pencils on the tables because you never know when a great idea will strike a researcher.

Here are some of the possibilities IBM researchers are exploring:

The disappearing computer

The specs sound like those for a traditional computer: an 800-megahertz processor, 256 megabytes of random access memory and a 10-gigabyte hard drive that can run the Windows or Linux operating systems. But it's roughly the size of a deck of cards and weighs only 9 ounces.

The Mobile Computer Core can be used on the desktop with a docking station, or it can be used like a personal organizer if inserted into a shell. It can be unplugged at one place and plugged in at another without being shut down or losing work. It's expected to be on the market this year from Antelope Technologies (www.antelopetech.com), which licensed the technology from IBM.

It's part of what is called pervasive computing. It envisions a world where people are connected wherever they go, with devices that are small and eventually out of sight.

That could include even technology embedded in the fabric of the clothes we wear. The military, for example, is looking at the idea of "active camouflage." It would use organic light-emitting displays in uniforms and a camera on a soldier's back.

The camera would send a signal to the fabric, changing its color and pattern to blend into the surroundings. If the soldier moves or lighting changes, the uniform changes, too.

For consumers, that might one day mean altering the color or pattern on a favorite sweater to fit one's mood or needs.

"The intent behind this is to show the future direction of computing, which is that the computer disappears into our everyday life," Murdock said. "It disappears into appliances. It becomes as relevant as the motor, for example, in a refrigerator."

Technology that works

To realize IBM's vision of the future, technology has to be more reliable, easier to use, more powerful and much smaller. And that's being approached from a number of angles.

Autonomic computing. "It's systems that just plain work," said Alan G. Ganek, vice president of IBM's autonomic computing software group.

It means systems that automatically manage and fix themselves, freeing users to concentrate on work and creative tasks.

Contrast that with today's tech and its crashes, errors and complexity. "It's a constant barrage of technocratic questions that end users are" faced with, Ganek said.

But producing crash-free technology will require the tech industry to agree on standards that allow hardware and software to work together, no matter who makes them. "Ultimately, you'd like the end user to just never see any glitches," Ganek said.

Grid computing. Business and government use only a small fraction of the computing power they own in their servers. Grid computing lashes that untapped power together to create a tech reservoir that others can access as needed over networks.

Companies in fields that consume a lot of computing power, from seismic analysis for oil exploration to simulations needed to develop computer chips, could rent the required resources on an on-demand basis, says Tom Hawk, IBM's general manager for grid computing.

The technology already is being used for breast cancer research, and health care organizations are beginning to link up to share data and resources. Consumers "won't be aware that it's the grid," Hawk said.

And, yes, Hawk says that one day grid computing could even mean driverless cars and pilotless planes.

"Over time, we believe there will be a self-managed, gridded environment where cars will move along highways and detect traffic issues and challenges or weather conditions and will almost self-manage themselves to the desired destination without a driver sitting at the wheel."

Nanotechnology. In Frances Ross' world, a human hair or the head of a pin is really big.

Ross, manager of IBM's nanoscale materials analysis department, works with molecules with the goal of creating new chip technology to make devices smaller.

Among the advantages of smaller devices: They're faster, they use less power, they give off less heat, and they will be more economical to use.

IBM just developed the smallest silicon transistor, all of 6 nanometers long. That's 20,000 times smaller than a human hair, but it's a technology with a limited future, maybe 20 years or so.

So part of her job is to grow carbon nanotubes to see if they can be used as computer chips. Research is also forcing companies such as IBM to invent new technology, such as the chamber to grow the molecules, just to handle the science.

Putting it all together

The lowly potato peeler would not seem to have high-tech implications. But it does for Lee D. Green, IBM director of corporate identity and design.

Green tells the story of how Sam Farber watched his arthritic wife try to use a potato peeler. Farber redesigned the handle, improved its usability and created a business empire.

Observing how people use gadgets is critical to making them more user friendly, Green says. It's his job to take the ideas from other research departments and IBM customers and design gadgets, components or systems.

That can mean developing a rotating switch for MP3 players, a built-in light for its Thinkpad notebook computers or "electronic ink" for a flexible screen that can be rolled up like a newspaper but have its news downloaded fresh every day.

For business, IBM came up with new designs for server computers that simplify repair and maintenance. Components snap in and out without requiring tools. They have lighted displays that allow someone to see a problem from the outside and follow it inside to pinpoint the affected part.

"I'd like to be able to work on the inside of the engine of my car as easily as I can disassemble this server," said Green, sitting in a room full of gadgets his department worked on.

Then there's the IceCube system for Internet servers. It's essentially a series of "blocks" that have great flexibility. Blocks can be replaced without affecting the operation. They use ceramic couplers to connect with each other, eliminating the miles of cables traditional systems need. IceCube has no fans; it's cooled by water.

"We're this sort of bridge between a new business model that an IBM customer may want to create and an emerging technology that doesn't have a clear route to market," Green said. "Everything you do is driven not by the technology, but by the way someone's going to interact with it."

-- Dave Gussow can be reached at gussow@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4228.

IBM

  • Headquarters: Armonk, N.Y.
  • Top executive: Sam Palmisano, president, chief executive and chairman
  • Employees: 319,876 (2001)
  • Revenues: $85.9-billion (2001)
  • -- Source: IBM

Number of U.S. patents issued to IBM

1993: 1,085

1994: 1,298

1995: 1,383

1996: 1,867

1997: 1,724

1998: 2,658

1999: 2,756

2000: 2,886

2001: 3,411

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