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Tech jobs for all, robots and fighting fake news at IBM InterConnect 2017

Alongside pitches for state-of-the-art technologies at the tech company's Las Vegas show was a call for young women in technology and distinguishing the funny from the phony.

The IBM InterConnect 2017 conference last week wasn't a subtle affair: It drew 20,000 IT and business professionals,...

pushed the urgency of cutting-edge technology like the internet of things and digital-age ledger blockchain -- and, of course, was held in the unapologetically gaudy desert metropolis Las Vegas.

CEO Ginni Rometty addressed the mammoth crowd in the mammoth-er Mandalay Bay Events Center and talked about the power and reach of cloud computing in general -- and IBM's cloud specifically. Rometty brought corporate bigwigs such as AT&T chief executive Randall Stephenson and Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff onstage to discuss how their companies are working with cloud and another avant-garde technology, artificial intelligence, to sift through reams of data, uncover new insights and increase business.

Rometty stressed that AI, which mimics human intelligence and could take away many jobs done by humans today, will create more good than bad, and that technologies like IBM's supercomputer Watson will help people make better business and even personal decisions.

A convention employee examines a mosaic formed from thousands of photos at IBM InterConnect 2017 in Las Vegas earlier this month.
A convention employee examines a mosaic formed from thousands of photos at IBM InterConnect 2017 in Las Vegas earlier this month.

Spreading the love

She also showcased an IBM partnership with Girls Who Code, a program that trains young women across the U.S. for tech jobs, introducing founder Reshma Saujani and three recent program graduates to the audience.

One of the girls, Michelle Liang, described using IBM's cloud software development platform Bluemix and a natural language processing tool to comb online reviews for, say, a retail store and come up with an average percentage.

"It's really consolidating all of the big data into a much more digestible form that we would like to provide our users," Liang said.

Conference attendee Caitlin Long found the girls' passion for technology heartening. She's a product marketing manager at Global Knowledge, a Cary, N.C., company that partners with IBM, Microsoft and other tech companies on IT training and development classes. She'd love a program like Girls Who Code to go to her North Carolina hometown of 15,000 and get her 10-year-old sister hooked on technology, because girls typically aren't encouraged enough to enter the field, she said. She speaks from experience.

"It was never presented as an opportunity," Long said. "It's like, 'Oh, you could go be a lawyer, you could go be a doctor, you could go into business or marketing' -- but computer science is separate; it's siloed and it's gated."

Onstage at IBM InterConnect, Michelle Liang speaks about her experience in a Girls Who Code tech workshop.
Onstage at IBM InterConnect, Michelle Liang speaks about her experience in a Girls Who Code tech workshop.

Sideshows galore

IBM tried to put a friendly face on technology at InterConnect. In one corner of the cavernous convention space was a Pepper robot -- which started working in Softbank mobile phone stores in Japan in 2014 -- powered by Watson in IBM's cloud.

There was a small crowd around the big-eyed automaton, with people asking it questions such as "How old are you?" It would stare at the questioner with big eyes, and then answer, somewhat cryptically, "I'm as old as I look." It was surefooted, though, when someone asked, "Where are you?"

The response: "Vegas, baby!"

A Pepper robot powered by IBM supercomputer Watson takes questions from conference goers.
A Pepper robot powered by IBM supercomputer Watson takes questions from conference goers.

Software vendors tried, too, to get people to stop and ask questions. On the show floor, exhibitors drew attendees in with attractions such as candy buffets, comfy spots to try on virtual reality headsets and, at one point at least, a magic show.

An attendee tries on virtual reality headset at a vendor booth.
An attendee tries on a virtual reality headset at a vendor booth.

Making business digital

But there was a lot more than sweets and sideshows at IBM InterConnect 2017. Big Blue customers joined panels to tell how they're using technologies such as cloud to fundamentally change how they run as businesses. Takhliq Hanif, chief architect at Etihad Airways, was one of them. Etihad is the national airline of the United Arab Emirates and, Hanif said, has a "fantastic" product -- its fancy Boeing Dreamliner forms part of it -- and signature services such as a flying nanny.

But Etihad is in the process of moving beyond the physical world of products and services.

"How do we reflect that in the digital experience?" Hanif said. He imagined himself as one of his customers: "I'm thinking of taking a flight to wherever in the world; what's that experience going to be like? And when I book a flight, what's that experience going to be like? And then when I take one of our transportation services to get to the airport, what's that digital experience like?"

To conjure those experiences, Etihad relies on its investment in cloud computing, orchestrating its services using APIs and "our better, deeper understanding of our data," Hanif said.

Takhliq Hanif, chief architect at Etihad Airways, (on screen) speaks on a panel on transforming business models with digital technology.
Takhliq Hanif, chief architect at Etihad Airways, (on screen) speaks during a panel discussion on transforming business models with digital technology.

Cloud security matters

Wherever there are cloud enthusiasts, though, there are doubters -- especially when it comes to how much security cloud providers offer their customers. One CISO, Adrian Asher, from the London Stock Exchange Group, sought to dispel such concerns.

He asked people in a session he led on cloud security how many, by a show of hands, thought the traditional method of keeping data and applications in a data center was more secure than trusting those resources to a cloud provider. Most chose traditional. He disagreed.

"The amount of servers, the amount of legacy you have sitting in your environment -- how hard it is to manage and maintain those, to patch those, to keep the routers up to date to the latest firmware, the disk firmware," Asher said. "Can you imagine the amount of effort that you put into doing that?"

Cloud providers, in contrast, have manifold security controls in place -- from holding many cloud certifications to auditors and regulators reviewing physical security. And in their data centers, he said, there's no way for a casual observer to figure out which servers hold which companies' data. That's not the case in his.

"I have racks which have names on them," Asher said.

London Stock Exchange CISO Adrian Asher speaks about the security at cloud providers versus companies' data centers in a cloud security session.
London Stock Exchange CISO Adrian Asher speaks about the security at cloud providers versus companies' data centers in a cloud security session.

Don't call me fake news

Another session at IBM InterConnect 2017 veered away from the cloud and largely from technology altogether -- and it had folks in stitches a good portion of the time. It was led by Mike McAvoy, CEO of self-declared "America's finest news source," The Onion. His topic: fake news.

Some people, McAvoy said, think the news outlet disseminates fake news -- false information in the guise of news reports that catapulted into a major issue during the 2016 U.S. presidential race.

But The Onion produces satire, he said, using "tools of humor to point out truth in society. And sometimes what we do is we have to actually make things uncomfortable and challenge people to actually highlight the truth."

The Onion CEO Mike McAvoy discusses the value of satire and how his news outlet aims to debunk fake news.
The Onion CEO Mike McAvoy discusses the value of satire and how his news outlet aims to debunk fake news.

McAvoy flashed headlines on a screen as examples: "Drugs Win Drug War," which skewered the War on Drugs campaign and "Romney Slowly Turning Into $100 Bill," which targeted multimillionaire Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican presidential candidate.

The Onion tackles fake news directly, too, as it did in a video McAvoy showed, "5 Things to Know About Pizzagate," which addressed the debunked conspiracy theory that connected Democratic Party officials to a child sex trafficking ring.

"This has become the world that we live in, where fake news is everywhere," McAvoy said. "And as a society, we need people to be smarter in order to combat that." 

Next Steps

Big Blue pushes cloud, AI at IBM InterConnect

IBM, Salesforce: New skills needed for AI future

Blockchain draws curious crowds at IBM InterConnect

Dig Deeper on Cloud computing for business

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