IBM chief discusses Watson, cloud services

Boston, MA., 10/22/14, Virginia Rometty Chief Executive Officer of IBM, the featured speaker of the Chief Executive's Club of Boston, greets Boston College student Violet Papathanas who won a scholarship in Virginia Rometty's name. On far left is Warren K. Zola, Executive Director Chief Executive's Club of Boston, Carroll School of Management. Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff (The Boston Globe.
Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff
Virginia Rometty, chief executive of IBM. greets Boston College student Violet Papathanas at the Boston College Chief Executives’ Club luncheon at the Boston Harbor Hotel.

Watson, the superintelligent computer built by International Business Machines Corp., is perhaps best known for its tour-de-force performance on “Jeopardy!” in 2011, with swift responses such as “Who is Eleanor Rigby?,” to a clue about the subject of a Beatles song who “died in the church and was buried along with her name.”

But IBM chief executive Virginia Rometty argues Watson’s genius is best used to come up with answers to much more serious, real world challenges — treating cancer, for example.

The computer, which can understand questions posed in natural language, was a main feature of Rometty’s address in downtown Boston Wednesday about business uses of Big Data, cloud computing and cybersecurity measures. Watson is more than a computer; IBM markets the computing technology as a powerful tool that industries such as banking and telecommunications can use to more effectively analyze and process massive amounts of data.


For the medical industry, Watson is already helping doctors to personalize treatments for individual cancer patients, Rometty said

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“We will solve many of what have been looked at as unsolvable problems,” Rometty said. Watson, she added, “learns. You don’t program it.”

In an appearance at a luncheon of the Boston College Chief Executives’ Club, the IBM leader talked about how businesses could tap big data and off-site computer services to assert themselves in the marketplace. She also spoke about the need for companies to “train, test, and trick” their cybersecurity systems in order to keep their growing volumes of customers’ data safe.

Rometty was named to the top position at IBM in 2011, about 30 years after joining the company as a systems engineer.

IBM’s own business performance, meanwhile, came under question from an audience member who asked Rometty when the company would end a string of poor earnings that were highlighted just this week with an especially troublesome third-quarter report.


Rometty replied that IBM had dramatically changed its business model in recent years, spinning off hardware units and focusing on software and cloud-based services.

“We don’t need more revenue with empty calories,” she said. “It’s a dangerous thing to talk about your target being just a size without going into what it is.”

IBM is a major employer in the Boston area, with a large research facility in Cambridge and several acquired companies in Greater Boston. Since 2003, the company has bought out 22 Boston companies. Most recently, it acquired the database company Cloudant, which it closed on in March. Globally, the company has 430,000 employees.

Jack Newsham can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @TheNewsHam.