TR: Any thoughts on “the next big thing”?
GERSTNER: Well, first of all, we’ve got a long way to go on e-business. We’re about five years into a transformation I expect to take another 20 years.
However, there is a market emerging now around the marriage of information technology with life sciences research and genetics that I personally believe represents the next major revolution-not only in this industry, but for society at large. We’re going to do things like simulate the birth of cells, understand things we can’t even begin to examine today and potentially find ways to build new drugs to combat heart disease, genetic defects, cancers.
A year ago, we launched a $100 million supercomputing project called Blue Gene to explore one of the great mysteries of genetic science: the way proteins fold to form healthy or diseased cells. To do it will require computing on a scale that has never been attempted before–petaflop speeds, one quadrillion operations per second. But we’ve been getting ready for this one for a long time.
Even today, I don’t think most people know it, but the chess match between the Deep Blue supercomputer and Garry Kasparov was really a big, public laboratory where we were refining a new approach to computing. We were learning how to marry very sophisticated algorithms with massively powerful processing to attack profoundly difficult problems. What we learned in that chess match and all our subsequent “deep computing” work is being applied now in partnerships with major medical centers, universities and pharmaceutical and life sciences companies to lead this revolution in biology and health.
TR: How do you value the role of science and technology inside a company as sales-and marketing-driven as IBM?
GERSTNER: When I arrived at IBM in 1993, the first IBM site I went to was the [Thomas J.] Watson Research Center in Yorktown Heights, N.Y. I went there because I wanted those researchers to hear from my own lips that if IBM was going to survive and rebuild, we were going to do it around our very rich history of innovation and technical leadership. I wasn’t pandering. I came to IBM with a firmly held conviction that at our core, we were-and are-a technology company. If that’s not working, we can’t compete.
Seven years later, it’s working just fine. I mean, going into our R&D labs around the world remains one my favorite things to do. The record of achievement is mind-blowing: Deep Blue. Prototypes of quantum computers. Holographic storage. Chips that will power the next generation of Net access devices. The most powerful supercomputer technology on the planet and all the software and servers that power the most heavily trafficked sites in the history of the World Wide Web. Believe me, every CEO I talk with eventually gets around to asking how his or her organization can get access to this foundry of innovation, and to our technologists themselves.
So, I’d tell you that I entered IBM with a deep respect for the company’s technical heritage, and that has only grown over the last seven years-seven years, by the way, in which IBM technologists have earned more U.S. patents than any other company in the world.
TR: To end on a personal note: What excites you most about technologies in your labs?
GERSTNER: You said “personal.” All right then, let me talk about an issue that is both my greatest concern about this networked world, and at the same time my greatest source of hope about what’s possible here. There are a lot of people who believe a networked world is going to fortify the so-called digital divide-they see it creating a bigger gap between the people in the world with access to information and those without. That’s a legitimate concern. But it is not the predestined outcome.
We’ve already talked about this explosion in low-cost access devices. One implication is obvious. We’re going to have the chance to take unprecedented levels of service and information to the entire world, without requiring people to purchase a full-blown PC. Now, a lot has to happen in terms of telecommunications deregulation and competition to bring access charges down in many parts of the world. But there’s an opportunity here for governments to bring their citizens into the world of the information “haves” and to join this revolution, rather than standing outside looking in.
I was with 300 European business leaders at a conference on e-business last fall. I talked about e-procurement, e-commerce, e-service. Then Shimon Peres spoke, and said I had forgotten to talk about one of the “e’s”-e-peace. He then went on to talk about a school in Palestine where they have put computers in an Arab and Israeli neighborhood. The technology allows children to reach out to one another. His point was that these children will have a new chance to grow up without the biases of their parents and of the older generation. So, this technology isn’t just about competitive advantage and market share and productivity in a commercial sense. This technology touches all of society-schools and governments, universities, health care-every part of the lives we live, and it really can make the world a better place.