At IBM THINK 2018 in Las Vegas on 19th March, IBM has highlighted five future technologies it is working on. All of these technologies started life in IBM research labs. It is likely that IBM will seek to commercialise some of these itself and with the help of specialist partners.

What is interesting about this announcement is that it is targeted at a wider audience than might be expected from a research lab perspective. IBM is becoming more open about some of its research. It is showing off research at an earlier stage than it has done for some time. This gives some interesting insights into where the company is going.

There is another interesting message in these announcements. IBM has finally turned a very long corner in terms of profitability. Unlike many other companies, it has continued to pour money into research and development for the future. This is paying off but there is no point having the technology if nobody knows about it.

Part of this message is for its investors. It says: “Look at us. We are doing stuff that matters and we can make money off it in the future.” The support of investors has been important to IBM’s survival. The company wants to keep that.

IBM also wants to let researchers know that it is still the place to come if they want to invent. It is under a lot of pressure from others in Silicon Valley and further afield such as China. To acquire and retain the brightest talent it needs to show off more.

What is in IBM’s 5 in 5?

There is much to be said about each of the five predictions and CIC will be analysing their business and operational potential and market viability in detail in the coming weeks.  However, no one should be surprised in the direction IBM is looking to with the five technologies it is outlining – they speak to company’s core strengths, portfolio roadmap and heritage.

In short the five are:

  1. Crypto anchors – a technology that looks to protect the supply chain from counterfeiting. Addressing the counterfeiting challenge clearly offers significant commercial benefit and opportunity especially when considering the technology’s ability to deliver physical authentication and provenance of a product. Used in conjunction with Blockchain technology which focuses on securing and providing visibility to the transaction chain, one can see the potential gained from reinforcing the parameters for trust
  2. Artificial Intelligence (AI) bias – Removing the bias from AI is critical if AI systems are to be trusted. Most of the bias comes from the data set(s) that are used to train the AI/Machine Learning solution. Some of the bias is obvious in that the data set could be too narrow in its scope. It might also have too few records to be fully representative of what the AI will encounter once deployed into the real world. Data sets can also be subject to unconscious bias. This is a problem that HR departments are beginning to realise they have in recruitment where unconscious gender and racial bias exist.
  3. Plankton Microscopes – This is the first of the long-term technologies. It seeks to detect the levels of plankton in bodies of water. With the entire aquatic food chain dependent on plankton, the health and abundance of these organisms determines how clean a water source is.
  4. Quantum Computing – Like its competitors IBM has bet big on Quantum Computing. It currently has a 20 Qubit and a 50 Qubit solution accessible through its IBM Q cloud. These two computers are being used by companies to test the potential for quantum and to see what problems it can solve.
  5. Lattice cryptography – One of the advances that quantum computing brings is the threat of cryptography breaking. There is a day that scientists are currently calling Q Day. It marks the point where quantum computing is stable enough to be used to defeat many of the encryption systems that are in use today. This is still some way off but the problem is that replacing existing cryptographic solutions takes time. IBM is jumping the gun. It has taken the work done on lattice-based encryption and is developing that today. Lattice-based solutions are believed to be too complex for quantum computing, at least for some time past Q Day. Lattice computing is one of the technologies that make up Fully Homomorphic Encryption (FHE), a method that is too complex to fully implement today.

What does this mean?

As with all research work this is a mix of short and long term projects. The first two are capable of being used today it just remains to see how IBM will monetise them and who will partner with it. While it talks of the Plankton Microscopes being some way off, all of the underlying technologies exist and are stable. What is needed is to bring them together and package them in such a way that they can be deployed with a viable business and operational model.

The big bets here are on quantum computing and lattice cryptography. There is still much to be done on both. However, if IBM does accelerate its work on lattice cryptography and deploy it inside IBM Z computers, it will get far more attention than all the other projects put together.