Interview with Steve Hamm, Co-Author of Book on Cognitive Computing

Steve Hamm, IBM Communications Strategist and Co-Author of Smart Machines: IBM's Watson and the Era of Cognitive Computing

Steve Hamm, IBM Communications Strategist and Co-Author of Smart Machines: IBM’s Watson and the Era of Cognitive Computing

“I want to make the world work better and more sustainably, and IBM can help get that done.”

IBM Communications Strategist Steve Hamm has co-authored with IBM Research Director John E. Kelly III a new book, Smart Machines: IBM’s Watson and the Era of Cognitive Systems.

The book will be published by Columbia University Press on October 15. It lays out IBM’s vision of the next era of computing, the cognitive era.

It’s the second book that Steve has co-authored at IBM; the first was IBM’s Centennial book, called Making the World Work Better.

Prior to joining IBM in 2009, Steve worked in journalism for 30 years, as a technology writer and editor at San Jose Mercury News, PC Week, and BusinessWeek. He also wrote two additional books, Bangalore Tiger (2006), on the rise of the Indian tech industry, and The Race for Perfect (2008), on innovation in mobile computing.

Sneak preview of Smart Machines

Stay tuned for details on a Tweet chat we’ll be hosting with Steve and Dharmendra Modha on Thursday, October 31.


The Greater IBM Connection: What do you do at IBM?

Steve Hamm: I help shape our marketing and communications strategy, which combines paid (advertising), earned (PR) and owned (content we create ourselves). I focus on the “owned” part. I produce mini-documentary videos and write everything from Tweets to books–including co-authoring IBM’s centennial book, Making the World Work Better, and co-authoring the new book, Smart Machines.

At the highest level, my role at IBM is to help corporate communications make the transition from traditional public relations — communicating through the media — to the new model of communicating directly with our many constituents and influencing people through social media. In addition, I aspire to be IBM’s chief storyteller.

When did you join IBM?

I joined in December of 2009.

Tell us about your career prior to that – how did you come to do what you’re doing now?

I was a journalist for 30 years, starting at small newspapers in Connecticut in the 1980s. I was later the technology editor for the San Jose Mercury News, a writer and editor at PC Week, and a writer and editor at BusinessWeek (12 years there).

I covered the technology industry for 20 years. It seems like I have lived through at least half a dozen tech revolutions.

I wrote two books prior to my time at IBM. Bangalore Tiger (2006) was about the rise of the Indian tech industry. The Race for Perfect (2008) was about innovation in mobile computing.

Previous to my stint in journalism, I owned a small book store in Danbury, Connecticut, and worked in book stores in Manhattan.

I also wrote 1 1/2 novels. Neither the 1 nor the 1/2 was published.

I grew up in a small former coal mining town in Western Pennsylvania and got my education at Carnegie Mellon University.

What was it that interested you about putting your skills/talents into work at IBM?

In my last few years at BusinessWeek, I covered IBM. My main focuses were on innovation and globalization.

When BusinessWeek lost much of its advertising support and McGraw-Hill began shopping it around, I started looking for my next career move. I was attracted to IBM for two reasons: its incredible capabilities as an innovation engine and the Smarter Planet agenda. I want to make the world work better and more sustainably, and IBM can help get that done.

What inspired you to write this book? What was the impetus for creating it, now?

In preparation for IBM’s centennial celebration, John Kelly asked a group at IBM Research to look 100 years into the past to help tell the story of how far IBM had come in its first 100 years. He also asked the group to look 100 years into the future. Where was computing going? That project stimulated a lot of discussions around IBM Research and elsewhere in the company about the future of computing. During the centennial year and thereafter, John gave a series of presentations about the major technology shifts he saw coming.  He said we’re in the midst of a transition from the era of traditional computing, which started in the 1940s, to a new era of computing–which we later began calling the cognitive computing era.

This was the first time since the 1960s that IBM had a comprehensive vision of the future of computing. I told John and some of my communications colleagues that we should write a short book about it. At first, we were planning on doing just an ebook, but after we hooked up with Columbia University Press, the publisher of the business book imprint urged us to make a print version, as well.

Download a free chapter of the book smartmachinesbookcover

Tell us about the collaborative process you, John Kelly, and others used to develop the book.

I began by interviewing John to get the full picture of the vision he was in the process of developing. He suggested a list of people at IBM he thought I should interview. I talked to those people and many more–both inside the company and outside. We decided to go deep on several key technology areas: learning systems, big data analytics, data-centric computing systems and nanotechnology.

I also wanted to look at how cognitive technologies would affect cities in the future. So we organized the book around those topics. I sent sections of the book to John as I completed them, got his feedback, and reworked the chapters.

We also got a lot of help from the editors at Columbia University Press and a handful of university professors who read the draft and sent comments.

What do you see as the book’s particular relevance/importance to IBMers and Greater IBMers? 

To my mind, the era of cognitive systems presents an opportunity for IBM to make big bets on key technologies and to, potentially, become the unrivaled leader in the new era of computing. I think it will take a lot of bravery on the part of IBM’s senior leadership team to be as bold as they will need to be. They’re under incredible pressure from Wall Street to meet short-term financial goals. If IBM goes big on this one, many current employees will have an opportunity to participate in one of the major technology revolutions. Current and former employees who are IBM stockholders could reap big gains if IBM bets big and wins.

When you write that you believe that the cognitive era will be “as different from today’s computing as this period was from the tabulating era”, can you elaborate? What do you suspect will be the most significant difference(s) in people’s day-to-day lives, once cognitive computing has been fully implemented?

Tabulating machines were good at arithmetic and at organizing numbers in rows and columns. Today’s computers are very good at math, organizing and storing routine information, desktop publishing, and presenting Web pages and videos. Cognitive computers will be able to sense, learn, reason, predict and interact with humans in powerful new ways. They’ll help people penetrate complexity, make the most of big data, and make better decisions. They’ll help people live and work better.

Given its enormous impact, what are some ways people can actively prepare for, and get involved in, this new era?

Students and young professionals can study the technology disciplines that feed into cognitive computing, including artificial intelligence, information management, data analytics, systems engineering and nanotechnology. Midi-career professionals can shift into cognitive-related jobs. Individuals can look forward to having information and insights and intelligent agents at their beck and call anywhere and any time.

What is your response to people who fear certain aspects of cognitive computing, or hold inaccurate ideas about how it works and will work?

Some people are afraid that computers will take control, like “Hal” in the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey; or that computers will eliminate people’s jobs. It’s true that computer automation has eliminated or transformed many jobs over the past 70 years, but that’s true of all technologies. Cognitive technologies will change people’s jobs, as well, though I think they’ll be primarily augmentative rather than replacing human effort. It’s incumbent on individuals and society to find new skills and opportunities for humans, so people can work in collaboration with computers to do things that neither people nor machines can do well now. At the same time, it’s up to society to prevent machines from asserting too much control over organizations and people’s lives.

What is next for you personally? What does the future hold?

I’m learning about how cognitive computing will change organizations, work and leadership. When I know, I’ll write about it.

What do you do for fun,  in the rest of your non-IBM life? How do you like to spend your free time?

I exercise 1 1/4 hours every morning during the week, which keeps me healthy and happy. On the weekends, I ride my bike, do home maintenance and hang out with my wife, son and friends. My wife, son and I have been binge-watching Orange is the New Black on Netflix.



– Posted by Regan Kelly and Julie Yamamoto

One thought on “Interview with Steve Hamm, Co-Author of Book on Cognitive Computing

  1. Pingback: Will IBM s Watson Usher in a New Era of Cognitive Computing? | Totalenter10

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