Voices in AI – Episode 55: A Conversation with Rob High

About this Episode

Episode 55 of Voices in AI features host Byron Reese and Rob High talking about IBM Watson and the history and future of AI. Rob High is an IBM fellow, VP and Chief Technical Officer at IBM Watson.

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Transcript Excerpt

Byron Reese: This is Voices in AI, brought to you by GigaOm. I’m Byron Reese. August 12th, 1981. That was the day IBM released the IBM PC and who could have imagined what that would lead to? Who would’ve ever thought, from that vantage point, of our world today? Who could’ve imagined that eventually you would have one on every desktop and then they would all be connected? Who would have guessed that through those connections, trillions of dollars of wealth would be created? All the companies, you know, that you see in the news every day from eBay to Amazon to Google to Baidu to Alibaba, all of them have, in one way or the other, as the seed of their genesis, that moment on August 12th, 1981.

Now the interesting thing about that date, August of ‘81, that’s kind of getting ready to begin the school year, the end of the summer. And it so happens that our guest, Rob High graduated from UC Santa Cruz in 1981, so he graduated about the same time, just a few months before this PC device was released. And he went and joined up with IBM. And for the last 36/37 years, he has been involved in that organization affecting what they’re doing, watching it all happen, and if you think about it, what a journey that must be. If you ever pay your respects to Elvis Presley and see his tombstone, you’ll see it says, “He became a living legend in his own time.” Now, I’ll be the first to say that’s a little redundant, right? He was either a living legend or a legend in his own time. That being said, if there’s anybody who can be said to be a living legend in his own time, it’s our guest today. It’s Rob High. He is an IBM fellow, he is a VP at IBM, he is the Chief Technical Officer at IBM Watson and he is with us today. Welcome to the show, Rob!

Rob High: Yeah, thank you very much. I appreciate the references but somehow I think my kids would consider those accolades to be a little, probably, you know, not accurate.

Well, but from a factual standpoint, you joined IBM in 1981 when the PC was brand new.

Yeah – I’ve really been honored with having the opportunity to work on some really interesting problems over the years. And with that honor has come the responsibility to bring value to those problems, to the solutions we have for those problems. And for that, I’ve always been well-recognized. So I do appreciate you bringing that up. In fact, it really is more than just any one person in this world that makes changes meaningful.

Well, so walk me back to that. Don’t worry, this isn’t going to be a stroll down memory lane, but I’m curious. In 1981, IBM was of course immense, as immense as it is now and the PC had to be a kind of tiny part of that at that moment in time. It was new. When did your personal trajectory intercept with that or did it ever? Had you always been on the bigger system side of IBM?

No, actually. It was almost immediate. Probably was, I don’t know the exact number, but probably I was pretty close to the first one hundred or two hundred people that ordered a PC when it got announced. In fact, the first thing I did at IBM was to take the PC into work and show my colleagues what the potential was. I was just doing simple, silly things at the time, but I wanted to make an impression that this really was going to change the way that we were thinking about our roles at work and what technology was going to do to help change our trajectory there. So, no, I actually had the privilege of being there at the very beginning. I won’t say that I had the foresight to recognize its utility but I certainly appreciated it and I think that to some extent, my own career followed the trajectory of change that has occurred similar to what PCs did to us back then. In other areas as well: including web computing, and service orientation, now cloud computing, and of course cognitive computing.

And so, walk me through that and then let’s jump into Watson. So, walk me through the path you went through as this whole drama of the computer age unfolded around you. Where did you go from point to point to point through that and end up where you are now?

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Byron explores issues around artificial intelligence and conscious computers in his new book The Fourth Age: Smart Robots, Conscious Computers, and the Future of Humanity.