Building business on ideas from the techies

IBM vice-president Nicholas Donofrio looks forward to quantum computing.

IBM vice-president Nicholas Donofrio looks forward to quantum computing.

Testimony to IBM's prowess as a technology driver is the number of US patents it files each year. In the past decade IBM inventors have received a record 22,357 patents.

According to Nicholas Donofrio, IBM's senior vice -president, technology and manufacturing, the recipe for this success is "treating the technology team in a holistic fashion". He believes that any good business strategy should be based on sound ideas from the technologists.

At IBM, there is a sliding scale of financial rewards designed to incentivise technical innovation. Each time the IBM techies file a patent, they receive a bonus, which is boosted for every four patents they file. The recognition of the technical staff reaches a climax with annual awards for technical innovation where $2.5m (£1.6m) in prize money is up for grabs.

In terms of research, Donofrio is looking forward to breakthroughs in human/computer interaction that will allow people to communicate with computers in a more natural way. "Before I leave the industry there will be computers that can lip-read and understand facial expressions," he said. Such technology should improve the accuracy of speech recognition, allowing a computer to understand the context of a conversation.

Donofrio also believes quantum computing and molecular computers will drive the design of future computers, giving far more power than current silicon chips.

But while research provides a glimpse of what the future holds, most IT managers are concerned with the problems of today, such as software quality.

Quality is one of the many areas Donofrio oversees, and he has stern advice for anyone that would try to ship sub-standard products, "Don't ask me to ship shit."

However, Donofrio conceded that there will always be some problems in applications. "Software is a manifestation of a thought process and often it is this process that is flawed." One way to reduce error, he said, is by reusing code. Another solution is a process called orthogonal defect analysis - a result of more IBM research - which attempts to identify software modules that are prone to problems.

Given that problems will occur, Donofrio believes risk mitigation is perhaps as important as reducing the chance of errors. In other words, Donofrio's approach to tackling software flaws is to put in place people and procedures aimed at reducing disruption. To this end, he called on the industry to provide "a more honest, open and forthcoming technical environment".

Donofrio also has strong views on government control of security technology, particularly strong encryption. "We should never compromise the commercial base," he said.

Privacy is the other side of the security equation. "Privacy has to protect all data but it cannot be done without security," he said.

Donofrio was called to the White House to brief the Clinton administration following the first denial of service attack on eBay a few years ago. Donofrio said there was nothing wrong with the IT infrastructure at eBay. He attributed the troubles to poor security awareness among IT users and a reluctance to spend money. Reflecting on the SQL Slammer worm earlier this year, he said, "I have concluded that users do not care enough about security."

Much has changed since Donofrio joined IBM 35 years ago. The first chip he made had just 512bytes of memory - a technical breakthrough at the time. But today, memory chips sell by the gigabyte. He believes this change will continue and growth in computing power will be driven by the need to connect millions of businesses, and billions of people.

Molecular computers could offer as much as six times the complexity of today's silicon-based chips; quantum computing will change the face of IT; and we can expect to see computers capable of engaging at some level in intelligent dialogue with people.

CV: Nick Donofrio

Nicholas Donofrio is senior vice-president, technology and manufacturing at IBM. He has overall responsibility for IBM's research projects and plays a major role in determining IBM's technology direction and the development of global technical resources.

He is a fellow of the Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers; a member of the US-based National Academy of Engineering; a member of the board of directors at the Bank of New York; and he serves on the board of trustees at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

In 2002 Donofrio was elected a fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering, the UK's national academy of engineering. He was also honoured by the Institution of Electrical Engineers - the largest professional engineering society in Europe - with the Mensforth International Gold Medal for outstanding contributions to the advancement of manufacturing engineering.

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