IBM’s head of research dines with Union students, looks local for innovation


By Kate Collins

On Friday, September 12, IBM head researcher John Kelly held a discussion with the Union community at a breakfast gathering. Kelly reviewed the topic of IBM and its plans for the future.

According to Kelly, the company’s semiconductor research operation, which resides locally in Albany, has become vastly important to both cognitive computing as well as the creation of powerful supercomputers.

Kelly stated, “We’re perfectly positioned here. And it’s not just about the money. The brains are here too.”

As IBM rids itself of costly yet low-margin operations, it plans to rely even more on cutting-edge computer-chip technologies, which are being developed mainly in labs at the SUNY Polytechnic Institute in Albany.

According to BBC News, IBM’s cognitive supercomputer, Watson, is a computer system capable of vast artificial intelligence.

In 2011, it was asked questions on the quiz show “Jeopardy” and ended up actually winning the game; it had access to 200-million pages of content but was not connected to the Internet.

Following Watson’s “Jeopardy” appearance, IBM has worked on finding more practical uses for the machine, such as helping physicians make decisions about cancer treatments. The supercomputer can even generate combinations of ingredients to form a successful recipe.

IBM aims to encourage unconventional combinations, such as chocolate, coffee and garlic, in order to produce dishes that have never been made before.

This past July, the company announced that it would spend around $3 billion in the next five years on semiconductor research.

Most of this research would be occurring in Albany as well as at IBM’s corporate research laboratory in Westchester County.

IBM has made serious commitments to semiconductor research in order to contribute to the company’s interests in creating new-wave, high-end cognitive supercomputers that are specifically designed to solve problems ranging from health care to urban traffic problems.

According to Times Union, IBM aims to invent a new type of computer chip that will make these supercomputers faster and more effective while still being energy efficient.

The majority of modern chips are based on silicon technology. IBM is beginning to postulate that silicon chips have reached their limit in ability.

John Kelly stated, “We’re going to have to go to something other than silicon. In five years, we’d better have the next thing ready to go.”

The next option would most likely be carbon-based chips. IBM plans to use its $3 billion expenditure to push research on silicon chips to its maximum potential, as well as research on new materials, such as carbon, which may eventually supersede the use of silicon chips.

However, Kelly noted that the industry is “a ways away from using carbon in full-scale chip production and there are huge challenges that come with it.”

New innovations regarding carbon-based chips will involve getting suppliers to develop new ways to process these chips within the manufacturing environment.

Professor Fried of Union’s Economics Department shared, “Great companies are nimble — always responding to changes in the competitive landscape and shaping a vision for the future.”

He continued, “IBM is an example, as John Kelly exemplifies. IBM’s commitment to research and innovation in the Capital Region has important spillover effects for Union College as growth in the region provides opportunities for students inside and outside of the classroom. Students and faculty can participate in creating a ‘Smarter Planet.’” ­

“A Union College-IBM partnership enables Union as a small liberal arts college with bright students to be on the cutting edge of technology, furthering a Union tradition that goes back to the 19th century,” he added.

IBM has already been working with SUNY Polytechnic Institute on manufacturing new technologies.

In addressing this manufacturing process, John Kelly concluded, “We hope that many of the tools will be the same, but there are going to be new and unique tools as well.”


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