IBM Bets on Watson With Global Research Center in Germany

Inside IBM Corp.'s Watson Headquarters Prior To Opening

IBM's Watson.

Photographer: Michael Nagle/Bloomberg
  • Munich HQ is biggest investment in Europe in two decades
  • Internet of Things division to play `key role' in growth

Bob Dylan may not be impressed with the song-writing abilities of Watson in the advertising campaign IBM is running for its supercomputer that is supposed to understand language and mimic the inductive reasoning of a human brain. But the company is counting on Watson’s creativity, paired with a major push into the Internet of Things, to spark sales in its data-analytics and cloud-computing business.

https://youtu.be/pwh1INne97Q

Source: YouTube/IBM

The Internet of Things division will play a key role in driving revenue and profit within five years, Harriet Green, IBM’s vice president and general manager for Internet of Things and Education, told Bloomberg Television’s Ryan Chilcote in an interview. The company on Tuesday announced the opening of a new global headquarters and research lab in Munich for a division that will build Watson-based applications for Web-connected devices. The facility and eight other global centers are part of a $3 billion investment in the unit set out in March by Armonk, New York-based International Business Machines Corp.

“How this fits into the future of IBM is around profitable growth,” Green said. “We think it has real high growth, profitable growth potential.”

After 14 straight quarters of declining revenue, IBM has been looking for ways to grow as sales of its traditional IT services and software slump. The Internet of Things division, which is less than a year old, currently contributes less than 1 percent of the company’s $93 billion in annual revenue, Green said.

European Investment

The new global headquarters in Munich is Big Blue’s largest investment in Europe in more than two decades and will eventually house 1,000 data scientists and consultants, half of the total the company has committed to the Internet of Things group, IBM said in a statement.

The Internet of Things refers to the idea of using the Web to gather data from and, in some cases, remotely control devices from home appliances to traffic lights to toothbrushes.

Green, who described it as “a movement not a business,” said hundreds of IBM clients are already using Watson’s Web-connection services. The company has partnered with the Chinese government to find ways to reduce pollution levels in Beijing and with the government in Andalusia, Spain, to improve its ambulance services, she said. At its campus-like headquarters in Munich, IBM will be working with Allianz SE to find ways to streamline insurance underwriting and claims processing, she said.

IBM chose Munich for its new headquarters because Germany makes so much of the stuff -- from dishwashers to giant printing presses -- that researchers envision connecting to the Internet in the future, Green said. The local presence will also allow IBM to address German concerns about data security and ownership head-on, she said in a separate interview on the 14th floor of the tower in Munich which is housing the campus.

“That fear about security is very real and we respect data,” said Green, who served a chief executive of travel group Thomas Cook Plc before joining IBM. “IBM has 148 cloud data centers around the world, so if a customer wants data never to leave the province of Bavaria, it won’t.”

The center is the first of eight planned globally, each of which will focus on industries which are relevant to their home region. The Munich site will tackle the automotive, industrial automation and insurance markets, while planned hubs in Beijing and Sao Paulo could handle retail and pollution respectively.

Manufacturing Hub

“Germany in terms of its manufacturing centers, around automotive, around industry, they have been drivers,” she said. “Germany is a great place for the sort of talent we need in terms of the designers and architects, people doing research and development.”

IBM is hardly the only major company pushing into the Internet of Things. Companies from Siemens AG to Microsoft Corp. to General Electric Co. have announced major initiatives in the area in the past year.

“What no one else has is Watson,” Green said. “As we enter this era of cognition, we have a capability that can process at scale even unstructured data, that can reason with purpose, give interventions, reason and speak in natural language.”

While Watson can’t write a song as well as Dylan, that the supercomputer can figure out what he is singing shows there’s hope for understanding other inscrutable data, too.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE