Math and Analytics at IBM Research: 50+ Years

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Soon after I arrived back in IBM Research last July after 13 years away in the Software Group and Corporate, I was shown a 2003 edition of the IBM Journal of Research and Development that was dedicated to the Mathematical Sciences group at 40. From that, I and others assumed that this year, 2013, was the 50th anniversary of the department.

Herman Goldstine at IBM Research

I set about lining up volunteers to organize the anniversary events for the year and sent an email to our 300 worldwide members of what is now called the Business Analytics and Mathematical Sciences strategy area. Not long afterwards, I received a note from Alan Hoffman, a former director of the department, saying that he was pretty sure that the department had been around since 1958 or 59. So our 50th Anniversary became the 50+ Anniversary. Evidently mathematicians know the theory of arithmetic but don’t always practice it correctly

The first director of the department was Herman Goldstine who joined after working on the ENIAC computer and a stint at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. Goldstine is pictured in the first photo on the right at a reception at the T.J. Watson Research Center in the early 1960s. Goldstine died in 2004, but all other directors of the department are still alive.

Directors of the Mathematical Sciences Department at IBM Research

We decided that the first event of the year celebrating the (more than) half century of the department would be a reunion of the directors for a morning of panel discussions. This took place this last Wednesday, May 1, 2013.

Reunion of the directors of the Math Sciences Department at IBM Research

Photo credit: Mary Beth Miller

I started the day by giving a glimpse of what the department looks like today: the above-mentioned 300 Ph.D.s, software engineers, postdocs, and other staff distributed over the areas of optimization, analytics, visual analytics, and social business in 10 of IBM’s 12 global labs.

I then introduced our panel pictured in the photo above. From left to right we have me, Brenda Dietrich, Bill Pulleyblank, Shmuel Winograd, Roy Adler (a mathematician who was in the department during the tenures of all the other directors except me), Alan Hoffman, Dick Toupin, Hirsh Cohen, and Ralph Gomory.

Ralph Gomory, Benoit Mandelbrot, and other IBM researchers pondering a math problem

My goal for the discussion was to go back and look at some of the history and culture of the math department over the last five decades. I was hoping we would hear anecdotes and stories of what life was like, the challenges they faced, and the major successes and disappointments.

Other than a few questions I had prepared, I wasn’t sure where our conversation would go. The many researchers who joined us in the auditorium at the T. J. Watson Research Center in Yorktown Heights, NY, or via the video feed going out to the other worldwide labs would have a chance to ask questions near the end of the morning.

I’m not going to go over every question and answer but rather give you the gist of what we spoke about.

  • Ralph Gomory reminded us that the department was started in a much different time, during the Cold War. The problems they were trying to solve using the hardware and the software of the day were often related highly confidential. However, every era of the department has had its own focus, burning problems to be solved, and operational environment.
  • Hirsh Cohen got his inspiration for the mathematics he did by solving practical problems such as those related to the large mainframe-connected printers. Many people feel that mathematics shouldn’t stray too far from the concrete, but it is not that simple. This isn’t just applied mathematics, it is a way of looking for inspiration that may express itself in more theoretical ways. The panelists mentioned more than once that the original posers of business or engineering problems might not recognize the mathematics that was developed in response. (I think there is nothing wrong with theoretical mathematics with no direct connection to the physical world, but there are some areas of mathematical pursuit that I think are just silly and of marginal pure or applied interest.)
  • In response to my question about balancing business needs with the desire to advance basic science, Shmuel Winograd told me I had asked the wrong question: it was about the integration of business with basic science, not a partitioning of time or resources between them. This very much sets the tone of how you manage such a science organization in a commercial company. The successful integration of these concerns may also be why IBM Research is pretty much the sole survivor of the industrial research labs from the 1950s and 1960s.
  • There was general consensus that it is difficult to get a researcher to do science in an area that he or she fundamentally does not want to work. This was redirected to the audience members who were reminded to understand what they loved to do and then find a way to do it. (This sounded like a bit of a management challenge to me, and I suspect I’ll hear about it again.)
  • Time gives a great perspective on the quality and significance of scientific work that is just not obvious while you are the middle of it. This is one of the reasons why retrospectives such as this can be so satisfying.

Discussing the future of BAMS

Photo credit: Mary Beth Miller

After the first panel and coffee break, we came back and I started the session looking at the future of the department instead of the history. We have an internal department social network community in IBM Connections and I started by summarizing some of the suggestions people came up with about what we’ll be doing in the department in five, ten, and twenty years.

Sustainability, robotic applications of cognitive computing, and mathematical algorithms for quantum computing were all suggested. Note that his was all fun speculation, not strategy development!

Eleni Pratsini, Director of Optimization Research, and Chid Apte, Director of Analytics Research, then each discussed technical topics that could be future areas for scientific research as well as having significant business use.

After the final Q&A session, we got everyone on stage for a group photo.

BAMS group photo

Photo credit: Steve Hamm

One thing that struck me when we were doing the research through the archives was how much more of a record we have of the first decade of the department than we do of the 40+ years afterwards. In those early days, each department did a typed report of its activities which was then sent to management and archived.

With the increasing use of email and, much later, digital photos, we just don’t have easy if any access to what happened month by month. As part of this 50+ Anniversary, I’m going to organize an effort to do a better job of finding and cataloging the documents, photos, and video of the department.

This should make it easier for future celebrations of the department’s history. I suspect I’m not going to make it to the 100th anniversary, but I just might get to the 75th. For the record for those who come after me, that will be in 2034.