IBM lab offers glimpse into the future

Latest advances in technology applied to variety of issues

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To step inside IBM Research-Almaden is to get a peek into how the latest advances in technology are being applied to a crazy quilt of important issues from food safety and cancer to recycling.

Almaden lab, as it is known, celebrated its 30th anniversary on Aug. 11 as an anomaly in a time when many profit-driven corporations have abandoned the uncertainties of pure research. Yet this lab appears to be going strong, decades after researchers first moved into offices on former ranch land at the fringes of San Jose to do battle with resident mice and rattlesnakes.

Big Blue’s focus in the Bay Area has historically been about data, including some of the earliest work in disk drives and relational databases.

At Almaden, researchers were the first to position individual atoms for use in data storage and the first to create data mining algorithms. They invented the first ink jet printer prototype, which was used by Hewlett-Packard.

They developed the security for Blu-ray technology and created the world’s smallest disk drive. One Almaden researcher went on to earn the Nobel Prize in chemistry and the lab’s work regularly contributes to IBM’s 23-year reign as the top U.S. company for patent awards.

Today, Almaden, where cows and the occasional coyote still dot the hillsides, has shifted its focus to cognitive computing and artificial intelligence.

Researchers are busy crunching vast amounts of data and looking for patterns using Watson, IBM’s famous cognitive computing and artificial intelligence system. Beating human players at “Jeopardy,” as it did in 2011, is not all Watson can do.

“Our mission is to augment human capability,” said Jeff Welser, the director of Almaden Labs.

Corporate labs are mostly a thing of the past. Not long ago, the most powerful tech and communication firms maintained research centers, partly for prestige and partly to make sure cutting edge academic research was done in-house.

Most internet firms are more likely to buy startups than set up labs. Or they follow Apple’s model, in which “companies hop across industries without bothering to set up a central lab,” said G. Pascal Zachary, a professor in the school of innovation at Arizona State University.

But IBM, which has long been under financial pressure, continues to support research, devoting about 6 percent of its annual revenue to finding breakthroughs. However, the company has shifted the model for its 12 labs, including Almaden.

“Now we are engaged in research that will co-evolve with clients,” said Laura Haas, an IBM fellow who has been at Almaden since it opened. “The shift in style is a big change.”

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