Making sense of IBM's Jeff Jonas

High-school dropout, one-time quadriplegic, 25-time Ironman, father of three: meet Jeff Jonas, the most interesting researcher in the world.
Written by Andrew Nusca, Contributor

Jeff Jonas has been called many things: engineer, Ironman, boss, high-school dropout, chief scientist, dreamer, Dad.

This week, he can add one more: IBM Fellow.

The prestigious honor, given by the American tech giant for innovation and technology leadership, is bestowed upon those who harbor a commitment to tackling the world’s biggest problems. As the founder of Systems Research and Development, which IBM acquired in 2005, Jonas has been clocking long hours working on what he calls "sense-making analytics" -- on-the-fly data analysis and decision-making. The tech promises to revolutionize a number of industries, from finance to retail to sports.

Not bad for a guy who's seen bankruptcy, a broken neck and the birth of three kids. (And did we mention the 25 triathlons?)

We called Jonas at his home in Las Vegas to find out what makes him tick.

SmartPlanet: You were named an IBM Fellow on Tuesday. How does it feel?

Jeff Jonas: As a technical person, I don't think there's a higher honor in any company, anywhere. It was unanticipated. I never expected my life to go this way.

SP: I read through your biography this morning, and it's an incredible story packed with twists and turns -- for example, I didn't know that you were behind one of the systems used to protect the gambling industry from card counters. What struck me about your life's work is your willingness to yo-yo, for lack of a better word, between big-picture thinking and extreme technical detail. That's an unusual trait in an engineer. How do you balance that out?

JJ: It's changed over the course of my life. If I jump back to my SRD company before the acquisition, I spent much of 20 years building, architecting and deploying 100 systems. On each of those, I had to become one with the mission: learn how to do city assessment district apportionment, for example. City engineering practices for urban growth management -- how do you properly size the sewers for future growth? And a hundred more things.

Much of my early career, I was doing deep studies and engineering around a specific thing. Then I started to see more horizontal patterns. "Hmm, this isn't that different from that." There are just these subtle little similarities and repeating patterns.

The other half of the equation: I've worked on strategy and policy. (Jonas spent some time working on "Anonymous Resolution," a cryptographic-based technique that allows organizations to work with people's personal data without invading their privacy. --Ed.) In the last eight to 10 years, I've been spending time with that.

About three and a half years ago, an IBM executive said, if you have another big idea, we'll fund it. I'm not a [conventional] R&D person. I love starting stuff, but I don't start on things until I can see it. I pick things I believe I can see.

SP: What are you working on today?

JJ: I'm working on a way for an organization to make sense of a piece of data the moment it arrives, so that it can figure out what the smart thing is to do while it is still happening. Sense, and respond. It's like knowing when to blink or duck. Can an enterprise respond intelligently? Not today. If you visualize this, it's almost no different than taking puzzle pieces out of a box and seeing how they fit together.

I call it "context accumulation." You're only as smart as the puzzle pieces you have. The puzzle pieces incrementally accumulate. And so does the context.

What I'm building is an engine that takes transactions that are occurring and compares them to what you've already seen. If it realizes something -- for example, somebody shouldn't be in Jeff Jonas' bank account -- that bank would want to know that that's happening. It's a new kind of capability, another leg on the stool -- I like to think of it as the sexy leg -- that helps enterprises with what they need.

Today, there's a system designed to understand a user's question. A discovery system where you'd have to ask smart questions every day. There are not enough people to do that. You want the data to find the data. You want the things that are relevant to find you. Every single piece of data that arrives is the question.

Take somebody who enrolls in a new account. At that split second, the enterprise just learned something.

It's incremental and self-correcting. You might think that some things are unrelated. But that's a decision.

Imagine: you've seen a billion rows of data and you've made a billion decisions about it. Then you receive [data row number] one billion and one. Fixing it right then -- that's the hardest part. It's the ability to have new observations reverse earlier assertions. It changes its mind about the past.

It's exciting, but it's hard to sleep. I'm getting ready to make it commercially available, and I think it's going to fill a vacuum in the market.

SP: What drives you?

JJ: It's so fun. It's a hobby. I'm executing on my life's dream. I think the work I'm doing now is the most significant of my life. It's just great to be working for a company that appreciates that. To have access to the kinds of people here at IBM, and access to their research…the technical team I have here is extraordinary. The customers I get to meet with and talk about their problems -- big data problems. I'm not trying to make money doing this -- I would strike out on my own if I wanted to do that. I'm trying to be relevant.

I'm like an artist who sees the picture on the wall, but no one's looking at it or benefiting from it. I like creating things that are useful. I saw some of my work used at [money transfer website] MoneyGram. I saw some reports about it, and their fraud complaints dropped 72 percent after they turned [my technology] on. Does that mean 1,000 people a week are being saved from enormous dilemma?

I've also done some work around reuniting loved ones after [Hurricane] Katrina. It's extremely motivating to get feedback like that. There's a loud feedback loop in my work.

SP: What's one problem you'd like to solve?

JJ: I hope that what I'm creating today will be so easy to use, and have so many horizontal applications, that it is used to help find asteroids in space -- so we can protect Earth; this is where we keep our stuff -- and bioinformatics and healthcare, to address MS, Alzheimer's and cancer, and modernize voter registration. I could go down the list. I believe that the same invention will be able to serve all those missions with insignificant effort. That's my dream. I tend to dream really really big and I get halfway there, but it's still a pretty cool place.

I do have to test things, though. You can't get stuck in the Ivory Tower. I still get really deep in the weeds and work on really interesting problems with real data in the schemas, database structures, transactions. The way I learn is that I become one with something. I don't read books; I didn't go to school. I just immerse myself in it.

SP: Do we place too much faith in technology as a shortcut to fix fundamental problems?

JJ: There aren't going to be enough humans to do all the things that are compute-able. If we want to conserve Earth's resources, we're going to have to get more efficient. Will humans discover it, or can machines create insight? The thing you need to be careful about is, is there still a human in the loop? Human-attention directing.

I just met with a really global bank, and they're telling me about the thousands of people they have in Asia, in the datacenter, just looking for fraud and compliance. Like many organizations, they feel overwhelmed with the "maybes." Do they need another thousand [people]? How efficient is that? Machine-to-machine triage -- we're going to continue to see that trend.

Technology that directs human attention so that we can figure out where to [best] input our human quality is more important.

SP: In 1988, a car accident left you temporarily paralyzed. Did it change the way you look at things?

JJ: There's only one actual thing that still sits with me: every day has been an extra day. The chances I'd live through that were near-zero. Every day's been extra. It also taught me that -- I was a kid then -- I learned that mortality was something. When you're a kid, you're fearless. Then you discover: jeez, you can actually kill yourself by accident.

I felt from a young age that computers were my purpose. I remember thinking, sitting there completely paralyzed from the neck down, that I can still touch a pencil to my nose...and program [computers]. My certainty in what I felt was my life's work was present though that.

SP: To someone who wants to solve the world's problems, I'd say...

JJ: I just wanted to be a programmer when I was a kid. I got an early taste of what computers could do. Someone showed me in 1976 how to search ARPANET or AOL or something -- "copper pipe cooling systems," that's what the query was for. I remember thinking to myself, "That's what I do. I can do this. I understand this." It was a weird feeling. I felt skilled at it -- but I didn't know anything about it. I was 13! That's all I ever wanted to do after that. That's why I dropped out of high school. I took two computer classes in high school, and there were no more left to take, so I left.

What I tell my kids, and anybody who really wants to listen, is try to find a job you love because you spend most of your life working. I didn't really chase money -- clearly, I spent most of my life broke -- but if you find something you love, you can be really great at it.

And stay productive. There are a lot of people waking up all over the world working real hard to get educated. If you want to be globally competitive…look, I tell my kids: "200,000 people were more productive than you today, getting smarter about the way the world is." And I tell them to go to school. Few people would actually want [to take] my life's course.

SP: Wow. My parents only used to say, "Eat your food, there are kids starving in Somalia..." So how do you tell your hardworking kids to cool their heels and smell the roses?

JJ: I work hard and play hard. They need to see me play more. I tell them there's time to play later. If they play too much now, that curve of success doesn't have as high of an arc. They're better off making really deep investments now and take the time to do the fun things later.

Editor's note: The original version of this post made reference to "disk apportionment"; that is incorrect. It is "city assessment district apportionment." We regret the error.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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