JOSE, Calif. — To step inside IBM Research-Almaden is
to get a peek into how the latest advances in technology
are being applied to a crazy quilt of important issues
from food safety and cancer to recycling.
lab, as it is known, celebrated its 30th anniversary
earlier this month as an anomaly in a time when many
profit-driven corporations have abandoned the
uncertainties of pure research. Yet this lab appears to
be going strong, decades after researchers first moved
into offices on former ranch land at the fringes of San
Jose to do battle with resident mice and rattlesnakes.
Blue’s focus in the Bay Area has historically been
about data, including some of the earliest work in disk
drives and relational databases.
Almaden, researchers were the first to position
individual atoms for use in data storage and the first
to create data mining algorithms. They invented the
first ink jet printer prototype, which Hewlett-Packard
made good use of. They developed the security for Blu-ray
technology and created the world’s smallest disk
drive. One Almaden researcher went on to earn the Nobel
Prize in chemistry and the lab’s work regularly
contributes to IBM’s 23-year reign as the top U.S.
company for patent awards.
Almaden, where cows and the occasional coyote still dot
the hillsides, has shifted its focus to cognitive
computing and artificial intelligence.
here are busy crunching vast amounts of data and looking
for patterns using Watson, IBM’s famous cognitive
computing and artificial intelligence system. Beating
human players at "Jeopardy," as it did in
2011, is not all Watson can do.
mission is to augment human capability," said Jeff
Welser, the director of Almaden Labs.
labs are mostly a thing of the past. Not long ago, the
most powerful tech and communication firms maintained
research centers, partly for prestige and partly to make
sure cutting edge academic research was done in-house.
of Google, which has its semi secret X research
division, most internet firms are more likely to buy
startups than set up labs. Or they follow Apple’s
model, in which "companies hop across industries
without bothering to set up a central lab," said G.
Pascal Zachary, a professor in the school of innovation
at Arizona State University.
IBM, which has long been under financial pressure,
continues to support research, devoting about 6 percent
of its annual revenue to finding breakthroughs. However,
the company, which was founded more than 100 years ago,
has shifted the model for its 12 labs, including Almaden.
the past, Almaden was run like a mini university with
specific subject silos. Researchers toiled away on
projects in isolation before sharing with them with the
we are engaged in research that will co-evolve with
clients," said Laura Haas, an IBM fellow who has
been at Almaden since it opened. "The shift in
style is a big change."
shift makes sense for the times. The promise of big data
is that it will provide new insights to help solve real
problems. But those insights often need someone with a
deep understanding of how the underlying technology —
the chips, the databases — works, as well as subject
labs are viewed as the single greatest asset of the
organization," said Bernie Meyerson, IBM’s chief
innovation officer. "The magic is the labs evolve
ahead of the company. They are a vital part of defining
buzzword at Almaden is "multidisciplinary." An
electrical engineer partners with a physicist. Together
they crunch data using Watson to work on modeling cancer
cells to help with cancer detection or study data on the
movements of plankton to better understand algae blooms
threatening some Florida beaches.
Nagarajan, a machine learning expert, oversees a project
that teaches Watson how to look for patterns in massive
amounts of protein data found in all the world’s
academic research, something no human could easily
digest. "If you can indeed feed the machine the
language of protein and biology, you can accelerate the
pace of discovery," she said.
a year, Almaden researchers gather in the auditorium for
an open mic of sorts — the Grand Challenge — where
they present some of their most far out ideas. The
winner gets to work on the idea for two years.
year’s winner came up with an idea that ultimately led
to TrueNorth, an energy efficient chip that mimics how
the brain works. Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory
will use the chip to explore new computing capabilities,
and Samsung will demonstrate TrueNorth in mobile
year, someone suggested sequencing the DNA and RNA of
food samples to find anomalies that might point to
food-borne illnesses or food fraud. The first samples,
sequenced by the University of California at Davis, were
of fish meal, meat and bone meal, whole grain corn and
poultry meal. Now IBM has a partnership with Mars Inc.,
the food company, and Bio-Rad, a biological testing
company, for its Consortium for Sequencing the Food
even accidents lead to new discoveries.
Garcia, a polymer chemist, was doing a routine
experiment when she accidentally made a new kind of
had to break her flask to extract it. By deconstructing
the accidental material, Garcia and others learned they
had found a new class of plastics, nicknamed Titan, that
is super strong and can be recycled an infinite number
of times (unlike petroleum-based plastics).
not a bad job," she quipped.
it’s not. At Almaden, now at 30, such breakthroughs
are still part of a day’s work.