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When I became editor-in-chief of Discover magazine in the late 1990s, it was owned by the Walt Disney Co. CEO Michael Eisner. Michael had engineered the purchase of the magazine and was perhaps its most devoted reader.
Michael used to say that Disney was, yes, an entertainment company…
But far more importantly, it was a technology company.
At the time I was hired, Disney was going through a huge corporate push for diversity. Every hire I subsequently made was put through a process that sought a pool of candidates who weren’t only white males. I was put through “diversity training,” and I became quite impressed with what it could achieve.
Disney foresaw a global market for its products long before many other corporations did.
It planned a theme park in China before other American corporations were willing to risk investing there…
And it realized that in order to be successful in a global market, it would have to see the world through many different cultures, not just the culture of Southern California.
I bring this up because at the same time I assumed the editorship of Discover, I started hanging around IBM’s research labs in Westchester County, just north of New York City.
The research culture of IBM and Disney’s diversity program are intertwined in an interesting way…
IBM’s commitment to research in today’s world stirs the memories of Disney’s search for diversification.
That’s because what started as a smattering of IBM labs in the United States in the 1990s has exploded into 12 huge research centers around the globe, each with multiple centers.
IBM research is global, and its personnel tend to reflect the diversity of cultures on Earth. The only continent IBM doesn’t have a major research center in now is Antarctica.
All of this is leading to an IBM that succeeds in developing artificial intelligence from great minds around the globe.
For instance, the company is full-tilt focused on making electronics function like biology, from truly biological chips to chips that are grouped together like brain cells and function like them.
IBM researchers from the company’s lab in Switzerland recently announced they have replicated one of the most difficult-to-reproduce functions in all of biology, but one that is simple for a brain neuron to do — spike.
When you touch a hot stove, neurons in your brain collect millions of new inputs from your fingertips — and then spike, sending out an urgent signal that causes you to remove your hand without even thinking about it.
That spiking function is simple and elegant but extremely difficult to mimic.
If you keep sending signal after signal to a neuron, slowly but surely, it will make sense of the data as a charge builds within it, and then at the precisely correct moment it fires off an electrical charge to other neurons — the spike.
IBM researchers in Switzerland have discovered not only how to replicate that neuronal function with remarkable new chips, but how to use it to interpret patterns that even many human brains can’t perceive in Big Data.
The researchers say their neuron-like chips can interpret the kind of Big Data found in weather statistics, Twitter feeds and the sort of information that will one day come from the Internet of Things.
They say that just one artificial neuron can detect meaningful patterns in those streams of binary data. Imagine what thousands can do.
The reason this is significant is that IBM’s approach to creating computer chips that mimic the brain means that it can dispense with the logic center/memory center communications that are so wasteful of both energy and time in state-of-the-art computers and their chips.
In today’s most advanced electronics, a logic processor has to access memory to process a function, and then the result has to go back to memory again to be stored. There’s incessant back-and-forth between memory and processor in computers today.
In a neural-based computer such as IBM is designing, the processor and storage are combined. Communications between storage and logic are replaced by connections between artificial neurons.
The recent findings prove that IBM’s leaders know what Disney’s Michael Eisner knew: that by harnessing diversity of input from minds around the globe, a company can develop products and ideas it could never have dreamed of had it hunkered down in one country, surrounded by one culture.
Artificial intelligence is by far the hottest theme in technology today, and it will be for the next 20 years at least. The competition is fierce. But IBM hasn’t lost its touch when it comes to true innovation and forward thinking.
To your health and wealth,
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