Chicken and egg? IBM TED summit asks if necessity fosters innovation

The ​Watson supercomputer took center stage this time last year as IBM fine-tuned its forecasts for tech for healthcare, work, and our personal lives over the next several decades.

SAN FRANCISCO---Many startups sprout up these days with the ambition to alleviate a pain point, from hailing a taxi via smartphone to workplace collaboration software.

But old guard corporations across multiple industries are warming up to this approach, as discussed at the annual IBM at TED summit on Wednesday afternoon.

Themed "Necessity and Invention," many of the makers, scientists and entrepreneurs on stage at the Yerba Buena Theater -- home to many Apple iPhone debuts and tech conference fireside chats -- put this hypothesis to the test in describing how their own innovations evolved.

"The focus shifts from how do we build this darn thing to how do we use it," remarked Dr. Jerry M. Chow, manager of the Experimental Quantum Computing group at IBM's T. J. Watson Research Center, while discussing the design and integration processes for superconducting quantum devices.

For a tangible pain point found all over the planet and affecting the entire food chain: plastic. Think plastic grocery bags and six-pack plastic soda rings.

Plastic has been at the root of many environmental and safety issues, admitted Dr. Jeannette Garcia, a chemist at IBM Research, adding we don't even know what the long terms effects of plastic will be. Frighteningly, many of the world's "first plastics" are still floating around the planet despite modern recycling efforts, she said.

Nevertheless, Garcia told the audience she still wants them to love plastic as much as she does, arguing many plastics can be melted and remolded.

A newer method to achieve this, she cited, is 3D printing, which could be employed to utilize industrial plastics for building parts, later breaking them down and then rebuilding them for new purposes - all on site and in the field.

"Imagine the implications," Garcia said, listing potential products ranging from disposable medical devices, water purification, space applications or even lightweight and recyclable airplanes.

Moving away from physical resources toward the cloud, IBM's Africa Research Lab is developing technologies for driving financial inclusion, specifically for mobile commerce and credit.

Eric Mibuari, team lead of the Financial Services Innovation group at the IBM lab in Nairobi, argued software for credit scoring and other applications developed for established markets can't keep pace with demand surging in developing countries.

Mobile platforms have the potential to revolutionize archaic financial establishments and empower small business owners in developing nations like never before, essentially using cloud-based data to fill in paper trail gaps. Mibuari explained how a bank could pull in mobile data from a carrier to determine loan eligibility for any type of candidate, whether they are a handyman or stay-at-home mother.

"Mobile financial services do not have to remain a first-world privilege," Mibuari asserted. "We have the tools and creativity to give every person the access to credit that they deserve."

Then there are pain points that are more emotional than physical, which might present a greater challenge for tech to solve.

One example is social anxiety, which many smartphone owners try to alleviate (or avoid) by staring down at their mobile devices in public situations.

Vinith Misra, a research staff member in IBM's Watson Group, opined on how the mixture of cognitive computing and humor could improve relations among people and machines.

"It's not unusual for those of us who have trouble interacting with each other to go to computers as a safe haven," Misra observed, listing Apple's Siri, Microsoft's Cortana and Google Now as platforms that people connect with frequently everyday.

"Computers today aren't just word processors," Misra reminded, pointing out they are now everywhere from our wrists to inside our toasters.

Siri often receives a number of "boneheaded questions," Misra quipped, presenting following exchange on screen: "Siri, what color are your eyes?" Siri's response: "I don't have eyes. But if I did, I think I'd be rolling them a lot..."

Misra acknowledged digital personal assistants haven't fully grasped the art of comedy, but he said they already have the power to hunt down words with similar relationships and throw out a few yuk-yuks.

Case in point: "What do you call a murderer with moral fiber? A cereal killer." Following a number of groans from the audience, Misra insisted that joke was written by a computer.

"Computational humor is not just about connecting us with our machines but also with each other," Misra concluded.

Watson, the heart of IBM's cognitive and machine learning portfolio, has also been a popular fixture at previous TED talks. The supercomputer took center stage this time last year as IBM fine-tuned its tech forecasts for healthcare, work, and our personal lives over the next several decades.

Earlier this week, IBM unveiled more developments for churning machine data into digital cognitive learning breakthroughs actually start with tackling a rather mundane discovery method: the simple Q&A session.

Looking beyond just simple conversations to feed Watson's digital brain for analysis, IBM rattled off a roster of new partners at centers of higher learning that specialize in processing natural language dialogue, reasoning and theorizing.

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