IBM Executive Interview, Mike Rhodin [Biz Leader Latte]

Mike Rhodin, Sr VP, IBM Watson Group (Image credit: IBM)

“Watson can achieve in nine minutes what it would take 30 doctors a month to do…we’re actually revolutionizing entire industries and professions with Watson” – Mike Rhodin, Sr VP, IBM Watson Group

Leslieanne John, P-TECH student and IBM CAI intern, conducted a series of executive interview posts exploring topics such as the technical skills necessary for business today and preparing students for the future.  She also looked into technical skills gaps and how technology integrates with education.  Her fourth interview was with Mike Rhodin, Senior Vice President, IBM Watson Group.

Image credit: IBM Watson

Despite my preference as a child for books over television, there was always a specific time of day when I was glued to the screen. Every weeknight at 6:58, I put the television on channel seven and awaited the beginning of my favorite show, Jeopardy. I was on the edge of my seat as it started, anticipating the introduction of the day’s contestants ­­– well, one contestant in particular: Ken Jennings. He was the one that I wanted to see. He never lost a match. No one could measure up to his level of intellect. He became someone I admired, idolized even. Can you imagine the devastation, then, that a 14-year-old felt when her idol was defeated? Who was to blame for this? A computer. Although Jon Iwata, IBM’s CMO, would disagree. When I interviewed him a few weeks ago, he said, “I don’t even know what to call Watson, but it’s not a computer,” before listing Watson’s capabilities, such as natural language processing, unstructured data sorting, hypothesis generating, and confidence calculating.

Recently, I had the chance to interview the man behind my hero’s defeat, Mike Rhodin, Senior Vice President of IBM’s Watson Group. Not only was I able to get up-to-date information on Watson and the IBM division dedicated to Watson, but I also had a great conversation with him about life, college, and the future of technology. From our conversation, I believe Ken Jennings was correct in saying “I, for one, welcome our new computer overlords.”

Below are his insights into the evolution of technology and IBM Watson:

What is cognitive computing?  Where did this idea come from?

Typically, computers are deterministic, giving you only the “right answer.” But with cognitive computing, you won’t always get the “right answer;” you’ll get the best answer based on the information available. Cognitive computing was created in order to simulate learning in the same way humans do.

Do you believe cognitive computing is revolutionizing the technology industry?

Cognitive is going to revolutionize the industry. Up until now, technology has been more of an evolution rather than a revolution. Most system changes over the past 50 years have been evolutionary. Basically, we created a computing model 50 years ago, and all we’ve really done is made it smaller. We just kept getting better at making computers more efficient, smaller, and more energy efficient.

Watson is more of a revolution, because it does things differently. It starts to understand natural human language. A simple way to think about it is that Watson reads and it learns by reading. As a system, it can read massive amounts of information and start to make connections between the different things it reads. As it makes connections, it gets smarter and can answer questions better. Another thing it can do, after it gets all of this information in its head, is start to discover things that others have not seen before. Because it can connect so many dots, it will connect dots others haven’t connected before. So the act of being able to answer questions, the act of being able to discover new things, are two elements of what these cognitive systems are going to be able to do. And they’re going to be able to do them in a way and at a speed that humans have not been able to before. For example, there’s one project we’re doing with the New York Genome Center where something Watson can achieve in nine minutes would take 30 doctors a month to do.

What in particular drew you to becoming the leader of the Watson group?

I studied artificial intelligence when I was in college 30 years ago, and it had always intrigued me. It was a research field, but nothing really commercial ever came out of it. When I saw the Jeopardy match, I realized that we at IBM were on the cusp of being able to do something new. Right after the Jeopardy match, I went to my boss and said I want that project. After a little bit of decision making, we decided I could have it. I created a small start-up team and I put them in Austin, Texas. I put a wall around them so that other parts of IBM wouldn’t interfere. We let them work on it there for two years. And then after two years, we figured out that the technology had gotten better. We figured out the use cases and industries it could be used in. And then late last year, we decided it was time to commercialize Watson. We put together a commercialization strategy, and brought it to our CEO, and I told her I’d like to run the new Watson group. I’ve always been drawn to doing new things. I like to do start-ups, and I’ve done a number of different start-ups since I’ve been at IBM. I like to create things. We’re actually revolutionizing entire industries and professions with Watson, so I’m having a lot of fun.

It’s funny that you mention Jeopardy – I recall when I was younger watching Watson defeat Ken Jennings and Ben Rutter, the greatest players that Jeopardy had ever had. Did IBM expect that level of success?

No. We were hopeful, but the match was actually much closer than people realize. If a couple of the Final Jeopardy questions had gone a little bit differently, the match could have gone another way. Our goal going into Jeopardy was to be credible and not embarrass ourselves. And actually, in many of the training matches, we were losing regularly against the Jeopardy champions, including Ken and Brad. But the system just kept getting smarter. There were a couple of moments at the beginning of the Jeopardy match where Ken and Brad looked at each other in surprise, because the system was behaving much better than they had remembered it. Watson had come a long way in the previous few months. It’s one of the characteristics of the system. As it learns, the learning curve becomes exponential, and then Watson was very competitive with them. But it was a closer match than a lot of people realized. Our goal was to be credible — winning was just an added bonus.

I know that Watson has the ability to act as an oncologist’s assistant, analyzing patient information and giving personalized results. Can you tell me more about Watson’s role in healthcare and other industries?

Let’s step back from that. What are the characteristics of being a doctor? You’re in a profession where you go to school, and you have to study really hard. You have to get really good grades just to be accepted into medical school. Then once you’re in med school, you have to memorize massive amounts of information. Once you get out of med school and you pass all the tests, the first thing you do is become an intern, and then you become a resident. Think of those as apprenticeship models. So you’re having to, in those internships and residencies, work 18 and 20 hour shifts. And what’s really going on there is you’re being observed under stress to see whether you can come up with the appropriate treatments and diagnoses even under the most trying conditions. We’ve been training doctors the same way for a hundred years. And so, the idea of technology becoming an assistant for things like that is a normal course of evolution. We think these cognitive systems become the ultimate assistant for professions in which the amount of information being produced is overwhelming the ability of the professional to consume it.

What advice would you give to young people in order for them to be successful in their careers?

Stick with math and science. No matter what your career goals are, focus on math and science all the way through school. In the technical age we live in, math, science, and communications are fundamental skills that everybody needs. They help you understand how everything works.

IBM Sr VP Mike Rhodin with IBMCAI intern Leslieanne John

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About Mike Rhodin

Mike Rhodin is Senior Vice President, IBM Watson. Watson is one of IBM’s most significant innovations in the company’s 103-year history and represents a new era of information technology. The IBM Watson Group is charged with accelerating a new class of “cognitive” software, services and apps that will fuel a diverse cloud-based ecosystem of enterprises, academic institutions and entrepreneurs. Before heading up Watson, Mike led the Software Solutions Group delivering industry-specific solutions in high-growth areas such as Business Analytics, Smarter Commerce, Smarter Cities and Social Business.

About the IBM Center for Applied Insights

The IBM Center for Applied Insights introduces new ways of thinking, working and leading. Through evidence-based research, the Center arms leaders with pragmatic guidance and the case for change.


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