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The IBM Research Lab has been responsible for several important innovations in the field of information technology. IBM’s India Research Lab (IRL) itself has filed a large number of patents for the 14th consecutive year, but what makes the Indian Big Blue proud is the technology and innovation it delivers to its clients, to society, and to the world. Let’s take a look at some of the technologies developed at this centre.
IBM set up its first innovation lab in India about a decade ago, and has been driven by just one mission ever since—to advance breakthroughs in IT, through research in software and services. Its researchers are passionate about being involved with innovations that matter, and are proud to deliver high-value technologies to the world.
The youngest of IBM’s eight globally-integrated research labs, the IRL has two sites, at New Delhi and Bangalore, and is involved in a wide array of research fields. “The current focus of the lab includes projects in the areas of information and knowledge management, interaction and collaboration technologies, systems management, distributed and high performance computing, software engineering, analytics and optimisations, services innovation, and industrial and telecommunications research,” says Dr Daniel Dias, director, IRL. “India has a rich talent pool, an enviable culture of innovation that allows cross-pollination of ideas from a wide array of scientific disciplines, and an understanding of end users. This is what differentiates the environment and researchers of the India lab,” he adds.
Looking beyond technology
The researchers feel that people look for much more than the technology itself. “They are looking for the ‘value’ that arises from a creation, and not just looking at technology for its own sake. When it comes to innovation, there is a need to ‘think collaboratively’, and in a multifaceted manner, as this determines who wins and who loses. Innovation today is more about services, processes, business models or cultural innovation than just product innovation. Innovation begins at the intersection of invention and business insight – and is made valid only when it results in significant business and social value,” adds Dr Dias.
As technologies, markets and social conventions have evolved over the years, research methods have changed in order to stimulate innovation. “A bright mind can create wonderful ideas or invent interesting technologies, but for those inventions to have any impact on society, that bright mind needs to be linked with society’s needs and challenges,” says Dr Dias.
Improving English-speaking skills
The researchers at IRL are developing a Web-based interactive language technology, to help people who speak English as a second language improve their linguistic skills. This technology, based on speech processing techniques, was initially developed for a leading call centre in India, to help improve the capabilities of their agents. Now the technology is being used for the benefit of individuals, schools and businesses. It evaluates grammar, pronunciation, comprehension and other spoken-language skills, and provides detailed scores for each category. The technology uses specially-adapted speech recognition software to give scores to the pronunciation of passages and the stressing of syllables for individual words. The technology also consists of voice-enabled grammar evaluation tests, which identify areas for improvement by highlighting shortcomings and providing corrections.
“Learning conversational English is not easy, especially for those living in countries where English is not the first language. Students, in particular, are always looking for a better tool to help improve their language skills. In countries like India, not having enough teachers whose mother tongue is English compounds the problem,” says Dr Dias. Students need special training because they speak one language at school or college, and then go back to speaking their first language at home, reinforcing pronunciations from their mother-tongue. The technology will enable easy learning, allowing students to interact with the tool just like playing a real-time online game.
Mobile resources optimised with IBM
Another technology being developed by IBM researchers is the business finder technology—a real-time, presence-based mobile resources management technology. It empowers a consumer to find and use the nearest, most highly-rated and available service vendors like plumbers, electricians, carpenters or doctors. The business finder technology combines geographic information system (GIS) applications and data analysis with mobile telephone networks, to provide the appropriate information.
Speaking on the benefits of the technology, Dr Dias says, “The business finder technology offers a live and dynamic ‘yellow pages’ for consumers who use mobile telephones. It provides search capability over both ‘mobile’ businesses—like taxis and plumbers, and ‘static’ businesses like stores and gas stations. It combines various attributes, including location, reputation, dynamic workload and feedback from consumers to ‘match’ consumers with the closest available vendors. As demand for speedier and more responsive services continues to grow, both consumers and businesses can benefit from the technology, which will bring convenience to consumers and new business opportunities to service vendors and telecommunications service providers.”
Advanced mobile ‘presence’ technology
The team is developing the ‘presence’ technology that allows you to be found on the ‘network’—at a computer, mobile phone, etc. In its current form, presence technology refers to just instant messaging applications. “In five years, mobile devices will have the ability to continually learn about, and adapt to, your preferences and needs, as you commute, work and travel. For example, your mobile phone will use new IM technology that will ping you about special sales at your favourite department store as you are driving by the store or strolling through the mall. In a work setting, if you enter a meeting room with several people, the mobile phone will automatically divert to voice mail,” puts in Dr Dias.
Real-time speech translation
According to Dr Dias, the movement towards globalisation needs to take into account basic human factors, such as differences in language. Presently, there are speech innovations that allow travellers to translate menus in Japanese, and doctors to communicate with patients in Spanish, using PDAs. In the coming years, real-time translation technologies will be embedded into mobile phones, handheld devices and cars. To provide active support to the movement, IBM has announced two innovative speech technologies: the first allows foreign military personnel to communicate with local forces and citizens, from exchanging simple courtesies to more sophisticated conversations; the second allows users to search, and then view or listen to, news from foreign-language broadcasts and websites around the world. These services will pervade every part of the world, eliminating the language barrier in our new, smaller, faster-paced life. The lab is presently working on new technologies on the same lines, as well as improving already existing ones.
Connecting to the ecosystem
Unless the atmosphere is conducive and challenging, talent withers. What is important is stimulating the right scientific acumen—and this is what IBM aims to do. It provides support to the faculty and students from leading schools such as the IITs, IISc, ISB, and IIMs; sponsors faculty awards and hosts academic visitors from top universities such as CMU, Oxford, University of Texas Austin, University of Maryland, SUNY-Stony Brook, etc, for extended stays.
The lab is collaborating with many institutes of higher learning to evolve service science, management and engineering (SSME) in India and abroad. The new academic initiative is designed to prepare graduate students for careers in the evolving multi-disciplinary field of services management. “Today’s services economy necessitates a new multi-disciplinary academic discipline for the 21st century. And curricula must transform to reflect the realities of today and tomorrow,” stresses Dr Dias.
Recently, IBM has signed a slew of initiatives in the SSME field with leading schools like the National Institute of Design (NID), Nirma Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, SP Jain Institute of Management & Research, Mumbai, ITM, Delhi and so on. IBM earlier had an MOU with ISB, Hyderabad and is working closely with IIMB, the IITs and IISc on collaborative research. Through a shared university research programme, equipment grants are given to promote research of mutual interest. The IRL has a significant summer internship programme, which attracts talent from top institutes across the world. For these researchers, participation in the technical community is an important aspect of the research environment. Researchers play an active role by participating in top international conferences and standards organisations, officiating in professional societies, organising conferences and programme committees, and serving on editorial and technical boards as well as on advisory committees.
A few innovations from IBM
SCORE (Symbiotic Content-Oriented information Retrieval) and EROCS (Entity RecOgnition in the Context of Structured data) technologies provide an organisation with the ability to generate insights to enhance customer satisfaction, as well as to identify new business opportunities. EROCS addresses the problem of linking a document with related structured data in an external relational database. On the other hand, SCORE addresses the problem of consolidated querying of structured and unstructured data, wherein the application specifies its information needs using only an SQL query on the structured data, and this query is automatically ‘translated’ into a set of keywords that can be used to retrieve relevant unstructured data. These technologies are useful for customer information management, targeted at marketing, fraud detection and prevention, and legal compliance. HDFC Bank has partnered with IBM India Research Lab on this project.
IBM has launched the application of self-assembling nanotechnology to conventional chip manufacturing, borrowing a process from nature to build the next-generation computer chips. This new form of insulation, commonly referred to as ‘air gaps’ by scientists, is a misnomer, as the gaps are actually a vacuum, with no air. The technique deployed by IBM causes a vacuum to form between the copper wires on a computer chip, allowing electrical signals to flow faster, while consuming less electrical power. The self-assembly process enables the nano-scale patterning required to form the gaps; this patterning is considerably smaller than what current lithographic techniques can achieve.