IBM Think 2021 – AI, Automation, Hybrid Cloud and Practical Innovation

By Charles King, Pund-IT®  May 19, 2021

For the past year and a half, life has been both massively challenging and exhilarating for business technology vendors and their customers and partners. As the COVID-19 pandemic forced companies to fundamentally rethink the way workers, managers and executives performed essential tasks, vendors responded with innovative new solutions and services.

Organizations adopted and deployed those offerings at unheard of speeds, accomplishing in weeks or months what once would have taken years. The result led to unusual or unique accomplishments. As IBM CEO Arvind Krishna pointed out during his IBM Think 2021 keynote address last week, “I venture to say that 2020 was the first time in history that digital transformation spending accelerated despite GDP declining.”

As vaccinations bring the pandemic under control and things return slowly to normal, how will businesses preserve or extend the transformational solutions they adopted? At IBM Think, Krishna and his leadership team offered valuable insights and new solutions to consider.

Practical AI innovations

The announcements at Think 2021 mostly centered on areas that have long been focal points for IBM (and some of its competitors): hybrid cloud, artificial intelligence and quantum computing. What was different this time around was the practical and business value offered by new solutions and features.

Take AI, for one. Many if not most AI projects and efforts center on or have been designed to support large-scale “moonshot” efforts that underscore their owners’ far-sighted vision and willingness to take on big challenges. That can be both dramatic and problematic given how often these projects’ complexities lead to setbacks, delays and failure. There is also a tendency toward “forest for the trees” confusion manifested by mistaking the results of complementary efforts, like machine learning for AI itself.

During its decades-long involvement in AI R&D, IBM has been involved in its own share of moonshot projects. However, the AI solutions announced at Think were more in the line of practical innovations designed to maximize dependable business benefits. For example, AI enhancements drive the new AutoSQL function in IBM’s Cloud Pak for Data that enables customers to receive queries to data in hybrid multi-cloud environments (on-premises, private clouds or any public cloud) up to 8X faster and at half the cost of prior solutions. The new intelligent data fabric in Cloud Pak for Data will automate complex management functions by using AI to discover, understand, access and protect information in distributed environments.

Another new AI-powered IBM solution is Watson Orchestrate which is designed to increase the personal productivity of employees in sales, human resources, operations and other business functions by automating and simplifying business processes. The AI engine in Watson Orchestrate automatically selects and sequences pre-packaged skills required to perform tasks, and connects them with associated applications, tools, data and historical details. There are no IT skills required for users. Instead, they can use natural language collaboration tools, like Slack and email to initiate work. Watson Orchestrate also connects to popular applications, including Salesforce, SAP and Workday.

Similarly, the new Maximo Mobile solution uses Watson AI to enhance the performance and productivity of field technicians who work on bridges, roads, production lines, power plants, refineries and other physical industrial and infrastructure assets. Users can use Maximo Mobile virtually anywhere, even remote locations to access operational data, human assistance and digital twins (virtual representations that act as real-time digital counterparts of physical objects or processes) to complete vital tasks.

AI complementarity

The practical melding on AI and automation to better manage or perform complex processes was one of the most profound themes at IBM Think. In his keynote, CEO Krishna noted that automation is nothing new, “It’s been around for centuries. Industrial automation gave manufacturing companies economies of scale and a cost advantage in making things like cars and household appliances. The most profound economies of scale are no longer just about manufacturing. They’re about producing breakthrough ideas by people leveraging technology automation to tap into their knowledge.”

Krishna addressed a common concern – that technologically-enabled automation will damage or eliminate traditional jobs. “The future is not about how AI is going to replace jobs but how it will change jobs by bringing in what I call ‘AI complementarity.’ What I mean by that is that AI is very good at accomplishing things that we don’t particularly like doing and vice versa.”

Krishna also noted that AI-enabled automation can have a remarkable impact on workers and businesses alike. “Research shows that a high-powered automation can help you reclaim up to 50% of your time to focus on what matters most. IDC predicts that by 2025 AI-powered enterprises will see a major increase in customer satisfaction. Let me put a number on it, up to 1.5 x higher net promoter scores compared to the competition. Human Ingenuity leveraging technology is what is going to drive competitive advantage today.”

This is a profound message for IBM’s customers and partners, many of whom have been significantly, negatively impacted by Covid-19. As the pandemic eases and businesses work to regain forward momentum, significantly improving both process efficiency and customer satisfaction would be hugely beneficial.

Other Think 2021 announcements

Of course, AI-infused automation wasn’t the only subject highlighted at IBM Think. The company also announced other new solutions focused on making life easier for enterprise IT professionals, including Project CodeNet, a large-scale, opensource dataset comprised of 14 million code samples, 500 million lines of code and 55 programming languages. Project CodeNet is designed to enable the understanding and translation of code by AIs and includes tools for source-to-source translation and transitioning legacy codebases to modern code languages. Another new AI-enabled solution, Mono2Micro, is a capability in WebSphere Hybrid Edition that is designed to help enterprises optimize and modernize applications for hybrid cloud.

Not surprisingly, IBM announced significant advancements in its Quantum computing efforts. Qiskit Runtime is a new software solution containerized and hosted in the hybrid cloud. In concert with improvements in both the software and processor performance of IBM Q quantum systems, Qiskit Runtime can boost the speed of quantum circuits, the building blocks of quantum algorithms, by 120X, vastly reducing the time required for running complex calculations, like chemical modeling and financial risk analysis.

Think 2021 featured testimonials by numerous enterprise customers, including Johnson & Johnson, Mission Healthcare, NatWest Bank and CVS Health that underscored the benefits they are achieving with IBM solutions, including hybrid cloud, Watson AI and IT modernization. IBM also unveiled new competencies and skills training in areas, including hybrid cloud infrastructure, automation and security developed as part of the $1B investment the company has committed to support its partner ecosystem.

Final analysis

So, what were the final takeaways from IBM Think 2021? First and foremost, the company and its leadership are focused on helping enterprise customers and partners survive the challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic and preparing them to thrive as business and daily life resume.

In some cases, companies will hope to return to and regain their past trajectories and IBM’s portfolio of solutions should serve them well. But in many other instances, businesses will be pushing toward a “new normal” by adopting new and emerging innovations, including AI, advanced automation and hybrid cloud computing. Those organizations should have come away from Think 2021 knowing that IBM has their back whether it is by providing the offerings they need immediately or investing in new solutions and services that will support future growth.

A final point about IBM’s efforts in AI: The messaging at Think 2021 does not mean that the company is abandoning large scale projects or long-term goals. But rather than focusing mostly or entirely on moonshot projects, the new IBM solutions infused with ‘AI complementarity’ show that the company has its feet firmly on the ground. That business-focused message should and will sit well with IBM’s enterprise customers and partners.

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