8 unexpectedly amazing tech projects from IBM

1st Jul 2009 | 16:00

8 unexpectedly amazing tech projects from IBM

How IBM's stuck its fingers into everything from Mars bars to electric cars

River flow, Mars bars and electric cars

Innovation is often the result of intense research by brainiac scientists with multiple higher-ed degrees.

At IBM Research, there are eight labs over over the world, including one in Israel and three in the US.

Yet, the most interesting projects are taking place "in the field" where the 100-year-old company is analyzing river deposits, speeding up financial transactions, and figuring out how to manage wind power usage.

These projects are excellent examples of how computer technology is intersecting with the physical world, instead of just bits and bytes on a computer screen somewhere, stuffed away in a dark lab.

"Data is exploding all over the planet, so we are finding new ways for IT systems to be more physical," says Robert Morris, the VP of Services Research at IBM. "There is so much data being derived from many different means, such as physical sensors, and there are new intriguing ways to put them all together. There is a new technology needed – what is called perpetual analytics – looking for new trends and making decisions."

1. TD Bank stock market analysis
The stock markets are fluctuating faster than any analyst could possibly comprehend. Yet, these real-time changes are difficult even for modern computers to analyse. IBM is working with TD Bank in Toronto to analyse data using "stream computing" techniques that consist of complex algorithms. These can read data on-the-fly and help analysts make decisions about the data, even as the inputs change.

"We are researching the ability to process data from a huge number of sources, so this project is using stream computing and the Blue Gene supercomputer," says Morris. "We are able to get a 21x speed-up than any other system. The messages and sensors in the financial systems are increasing at more than 50 per cent each year – faster than doubling every two years – so something new is needed to analyse this data."

"The goal of any automated trading system is to reduce the time between the receipt of market data messages and the decision, achieving a very low latency while processing extreme amounts of data," adds Nagui Halim, chief scientist of the Stream Computing Project at IBM.

"The more messages a system can process, the more decisions can be made, hence, the more valuable the system. In order to achieve the breakthrough, the IBM team took one minute of recorded financial exchange data from the TD Bank network and played it back into the newly developed Stream-Blue Gene system, incrementally increasing the speed at which the data was sent."

2. Beacon Institute/Hudson River data project
One of the challenges researchers face when analyzing real-time data is that the storage requirements increase dramatically. For example, one research lab might support a petabyte of data storage for all experiments, but a project analyzing real-time data from sensors might capture a petabyte of data every minute.

With the The Beacon Institute in New York, IBM is analysing the Hudson River using thousands of sensors that monitor river flow, wind conditions, and temperatures.

Great ibm research projects

The project is unique in that this kind of research usually replies on historical data to build plume models (how a toxin in a river will spread, for example), but the IBM system reads the data, merges it into data sets, and then allows researchers to make decisions about the river.

"We're detecting anomalies in the river system with thousands of sensors that can monitor an accidental spill or a toxic flow," says Morris. "It is critical to detect that the fluid is spreading and now toxic – it's very important to put it in context. We believe that is the future of data analysis."

3. Mars and cocoa genome sequencing
The Mars bar and genome sequencing are usually not uttered in the same sentence. Yet, IBM Research – along with Mars and the United States Department of Agriculture – is developing a genetic map of the cocoa genome.

The goal of the project is to learn more about cocoa as a way to assist farmers in planting cocoa in Africa, where 70 per cent of the cocoa used in candy bars is produced. The idea is to yield more from each cocoa plant and then have a lesser impact on the environment in the region. The research will be released to the public for aiding in cocoa farming around the world. The project will take about five years and involves computational biology and genetic mapping at both the IBM Research facility in New York at at the USDA.

4. EDISON electric car project
In the city of the future, electric cars will will finally become a reality – especially if start-ups such as Tesla Motors become successful. Yet, the computational dilemma is that, if everyone is driving electric cars, we will consume too much power and force coal plants to work over-time.

The EDISON project, a joint effort between IBM and the largest energy utility in Denmark, plus several key partners, are developing a way to link wind-power energy generation with electric car power usage over a smart grid. (EDISON stands for Electric Vehicles in a Distributed and Integrated Market using Sustainable Energy and Open Networks.) The pilot will take place on an island in Denmark that is unique in that wind power is a primary part of the power infrastructure for the 40,000 residents.

Great ibm research projects

The project is important because electric cars and hybrid consume energy at varying levels, so the smart grid will monitor usage in real-time and help allocate energy from the wind stations. "It's necessary to think holistically about electric vehicles and how they are connected with sustainable energy," says Morris.

Transport, health and surveillance

5. City of Chicago Smart Surveillance
In the city of Chicago, television surveillance is commonplace at banks, on roadways, and at office complexes. Yet, the technology has stagnated to the point where most security video feeds are recorded in two-hour increments.

The reason: it would require a vast infrastructure and massive amounts of storage to record video for even a few days. So IBM Research is developing a Smart Surveillance system that monitors video in real-time without having to record the footage. For example, the system can detect activity that appears to be criminal.

"The real value of surveillance is to create change in processes," says Morris. "In New York where I work, most of the office buildings have gates for security reasons, but we have a video surveillance system running that can detect all kinds of situations such as a an accident nearby. In Chicago, we can detect real-time information.

"We can detect the signature of a gunshot, for example, as opposed to just a loud noise. We can also know sensitive spots, such as a truck stopping in a sensitive spot – we can alert guards and call 911 automatically."

6. Urban Transportation Simulation
Traffic simulations are a critical computational effort – especially when a city is planning to build a new stadium, erect an office building, or re-route traffic for a new bridge. One minor error in placement and the traffic flows change dramatically, causing more accidents and using more fuel as angry commuters sit idly.

IBM, along with Kyota University in Japan, is running a complex simulation that analyses the minutiae of traffic flow: millions of vehicles running at varying speeds, examining the gradient of roads, and even driver reaction time.

Great ibm research projects

"The Kyota simulation is a long term example, but we also do dynamic processing in real-time in the city to control congestion at different times of the day," says Morris. "For the medium term, you can raise the toll rate to discourage people from entering a certain part of the city. There is also short term predictions for navigation and predictions – for example, how you manage lights for emergency vehicles."

7. PHIAD health records
At the IBM Research lab in Israel, the company is finding ways to not only fight an infectious disease, but release health data in a standardised, open-source fashion – similar to how a new web browser standard is released.

In most cases, when data is assembled to fight a new outbreak, the data is is proprietary so that scientists have a hard time learning from previous remedies, often having to re-invent the wheel for a new contagion. "We are also doing research with the Institute of Medicine to standardize health data for research purposes," adds Morris. "There is nothing short of a crisis in clinical trials because the data is never really released for scientists to use. The data is not saved in re-usable ways so scientists can not learn form previous studies."

The PHIAD project (which stands for Public Health Information Affinity Domain) seeks to change that problem by developing new standards such as HL7 CDA and IHE XD-LAB (for example, how the data is structured), and IHE XDS.b (for example, how the data is transmitted securely, even internationally).

Great ibm research projects

"PHIAD is a way to monitor and manage infectious diseases," says Morris. "This is a great outreach between Israel and the Palestinian Authority – microbes know no borders as far as what is under the Palestinian Authority and under the State of Israel. It allows us to predict how disease will spread. It allows us to externalise electronic health records to make research data available in an open matter [similar to open source software]."

8. Guang Dong Hospital information sharing
Health records in foreign countries such as China and Taiwan are often incompatible with Western medicine records, due to how the health practices differ. At the Guang Dong Hospital in China, IBM is working on a new project called CHAS (Clinical and Health Records Analytics and Sharing) that seeks to combine health records from Western and Eastern medical records into one, and then to standardise the data.

"This is a chronic problem – the processes in hospitals is not always efficient and not shared between hospitals," says Morris. "In many hospitals there is not a standard format for patients – for example, they may record a name a different way. This project is about data management and building data models for integration in the hospital and between hospitals.

"It integrates the Eastern medicine – so-called integrative (body and mind) medicine, which has been proven to work – with traditional Western medicines. There is increasing evidence that certain states of mind [impact health] – such as the impact of stress on the immune system where the body goes into flight or fight mode, which is okay when you are getting a cold but not if you are susceptible to cancer."

All of these projects reveal how technology is changing; the efforts at IBM Research are not conducted in a bubble where computer experts can learn new programming techniques or experiment on data models. Instead, they are having a real impact in the world around us in tangible, practical ways.

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Now read 15 cool projects from the labs of Google, Microsoft, Mozilla and Yahoo

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