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June - 2007 - issue > Cover Feature
Clients, society, world The 3 dimensions of research
Aritra Bhattacharya
Thursday, May 31, 2007
Suddenly, you can plunge into the Pacific and toast your eyes on coral reefs and exotic underwater creatures. Just like that. And then suddenly, as your boss hollers for you over the serenity underwater, you could snap out of it to address earthly chores. Seems possible?

Not quite, or maybe in a siesta you would say, till you would get to know about the 3-D internet that scientists at the IBM Research Labs in India are trying to build. Some years down the line, and no, don’t look for a time-frame on that since scientists don’t work on deadlines, their findings could help you literally ‘walk through’ your favorite bookstore online, or make a character actually pounce on the person you’re chatting with.

If you think these scientists look like bespectacled geeks, with white lab robes and calculations on the back of their hands, wait till you see them as part of the sales team that comes to your office to give a demo of IBM’s On Demand Business. Before you are able tell them from the others, they may have gleaned snippets of interesting information from your systems and the way they respond to On Demand Business to produce another tweak in On Demand Innovation.

As Dr. Daniel M. Dias, Director, IBM India Research Laboratory (IRL) will tell you, part of the research strategy at IRL is to pull its scientists out of their research labs and send them on client calls. Dias argues that contact with customers energizes their gray cells, inspiring them to come up with ideas they would probably never have thought of sitting back in their labs. Take the case of the On Demand Innovation Services team’s visit to HDFC bank. The experience, says Dias spurred a scientist to come up with a paper that was adjudged as ‘best paper’ at one of the international conferences.

The project at HDFC was in the area of Information Extraction (IE) from unstructured data. Broadly it focuses on identification of entities and relationships among entities (for example, it could help you find important emails, based on “customer of / employee of” parameters from the ‘unstructured’ e-mail inbox) and is a building block for business intelligence (BI).

Core speech technology is another area that IRL researchers focus on to up the I.Q. level of BI. This has contributed to the lab developing a solution that enables automatic evaluation of a person’s spoken language skills, such as pronunciation, grammar and comprehension. It could be used in hiring and training agents in the BPO industry.

The aforementioned innovations—and Dias clarifies that IRL is not a place for inventions sicnce inventions, unlike innovations are not focussed on problems—are part of IBM’s $100m InnovationJam initiative. The Jam involves 10 projects focussed in the areas of web 2.0, enterprise tools and supercomputing visualisation to display supercomputing data graphically. These projects incidentally were screened from roughly 150,000 ideas which were submitted as part of the online Jam, wihch drew participants from arcrosss 104 countries, as well as from IBM Research Labs’ 3000 researchers across eight locations worldwide. While the first of these labs was the Almaden Research Center in San Jose, California, established in 1955, the India Research Lab was the latest entrant in 1998. Located in New Delhi, it is ensconed in the area of delivering innovation that is created by collaborating more closely with clients to apply technology.

Says Dias: “This is an exciting time to be working in this field of technology in this part of the world. A host of fundamental problems of a young industry remain to be addressed, and the fact that technology plays such a key role in India’s economic upswing makes it the ideal place for tech research.”

The focus of research at IRL, and across all the IBM labs, says Dr. Paul Horn, Senior Vice President, IBM Research, is to deliver value to clients, society and the world.

While the On Demand Innovation Services mentioned above looks into innovation for delivering value to clients, it is through ventures like National Health Data Network (NHDN) and creation of a Services Science, Management and Engineering module that IRL seeks to deliver value to the society.

The NHDN, primarily a dossier on how IT can be used to improve the efficiency of healthcare facilities and digitize health records of patients, while keeping their security and privacy intact, is part of IBM Labs’ global thrust areas. The problem though takes on acute dimensions in India given the vastness of the country, and the proportion of population off the connectivity radar. The NHDN dossier, along with a similar dossier on improving India’s education system through IT, was taken up in response to a challenge posed to the Indian IT industry by President of India.

Research on Services Science, Management and Engineering (SSME) on the other hand, came about as a result of a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) signed between IBM and the Indian School of Business (ISB) in February this year. As part of this initiative, ISB and IRL will create cutting edge research and develop case studies to streamline service processes and replicate them across industries, thus looking to give a fillip to India’s services sector.

While the researchers at IRL might have to wait to see some action on the recommendations contained in NHDN and SSME research, their efforts in creating innovations in the gung-ho telecom market have borne more immediate results. The business finder, a mobile phone application which detects a service provider (like doctor/ plumber/ carpenter) nearest to the location of the consumer, was recently tested by IRL.

Incidentally, a story on IRL is never complete without mention of its similarity with the Indian film industry. Fridays, as we know in Bollywood parlance, are the makers or breakers of many a fortune. So is it with Think Fridays in IRL—it’s a day when researchers jam together to share their findings and take key decisions on the direction or possibly termination of a pursuit. And quite like the dream merchants in Bollywood, despite ‘flops’ or dampeners the folks at IRL soldier on!

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