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Inside IBM’s initiatives involving Blockchain, artificial intelligence, and other emerging tech

Sohini Mitter
17th Mar 2018
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IBM believes 2018 is the year when emerging technologies will go mainstream and change the business landscape of India. More and more large organisations are now tapping into the startup ecosystem and moving away from traditional IT.  

Global IT behemoth IBM has been at the forefront of reinventing itself for the new technological era, one that is defined by Blockchain, Big Data, Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning, the Internet of Things and more.

For a legacy organisation that dates back to 1911, the transformation may not have been easy. But, by its own admission, IBM “did not wait” to bring about the change. It managed to give new direction to its business by reimagining strategies in hardware, software and services, as well as by investing in emerging technologies like cloud, data security, AI, ML, and more.

IBM has been present in India since 1951 and has offices across 20 cities. With rapid advancement in technology and the simultaneous evolution of India’s startup ecosystem, Bengaluru-headquartered IBM India is not only helping domestic industries become future-ready, but also utilising ideas and concepts born in the entrepreneurial environment.

In focus lately has been Blockchain, AI and deep learning, and their implementation across sectors. While the Indian government made its interest in Blockchain evident in the 2018 Union Budget, the technology is niche still. Barring the banking and financial services sector, its adoption has been scant. AI and deep learning too have largely been limited to tech-centric businesses. But, 2018 could change all of that, believes IBM. 

YourStory caught up with Seema Kumar, Country Leader, Developer Ecosystem & Startups, IBM India & South Asia. Following are edited excerpts from the interview.

YourStory: Blockchain is the latest buzzword in the world of tech. What is the state of its adoption in India?

Seema Kumar: The year 2018 is when Blockchain will go mainstream. Blockchain technology is all about trust and transparency among businesses; it significantly reduces cost and complexity, and increases security. But its impact could be even broader. In the past year, in India, the technology has rapidly evolved from curiosity to experimentation. Today proof-of-concepts are bypassed, and organisations are moving into full-scale production Blockchains.

YS: What are IBM’s Blockchain projects currently? 

SK: IBM has worked with more than 400 clients globally on Blockchain projects, many of which are already in production. These include Mahindra & Mahindra, Everledger, Maersk, Northern Trust, RBC and Walmart. Last year, we developed a Blockchain platform for trade finance companies to facilitate multi-party cross-border trading networks. It was the first IBM platform made exclusively for India and the South Asian market.

This year, IBM partnered with Cateina Technologies to develop the first Blockchain-based solution for a life insurance consortium in India. Thirteen Indian insurance companies announced a consortium to explore Blockchain implementation in the insurance sector. IBM is working with this consortium to develop a platform for medical record-sharing, which will host customer records under strict confidentiality while providing information on a need-to-know basis.


YS: Are large companies allocating enough budget and fostering innovation in these emerging technologies?

SK: There are four major seismic technology shifts occurring today – across Cloud, Data, AI and Transactions (powered by Blockchain). Business models that leverage all four shifts will have a competitive advantage.

These technologies are becoming mainstream, and many of our top clients are recognising that while they always had the advantage of having a lot of customer data, newer digital companies have done a much better job of anchoring the whole business on insights from that data. Increasingly, larger organisations are looking at collaborating with the ecosystem, embracing startups and developers to build their products, and moving away from traditional IT.

YS: Which are the sectors that are early adopters of Blockchain? How is the technology aiding these sectors?

SK: Blockchain-based systems will radically improve entire industries, including banking and insurance, real estate, public records, supply chain, travel and transportation, media and entertainment. In the largest study to date among C-suite executives on Blockchain, 33 percent of 3,000 global executives across 20 industries said they intend to use Blockchain in their businesses. A subset of these enterprises is already using Blockchain in strategic ways to capitalise on shifting profit pools in their industries, or to arrive at new business models to gain a competitive advantage.

YS: What are the roadblocks to the widespread acceptance and implementation of Blockchain and AI?

SK: One of the biggest challenges that many organisations face today is acquiring the right skills.

With the technology shifts and advent of new age startups, it has become imperative for organisations of every size to embrace new age technologies and make its workforce constantly re-skill and up-skill. Organisations which do not leverage technologies like AI, ML, Blockchain, IoT etc now will be left far behind by many of the companies who are already doing some path-breaking work. 

YS: Throw some light on IBM’s initiatives with startups in India. Which are the sectors it focuses on?

SK: We work with over 1,000 startups across multiple sectors in India. The IBM Global Entrepreneur Program (GEP) is an industry-leading programme designed to help startups get access to Watson (IBM’s AI platform), free cloud credits, technology and business mentorship, our various labs, joint go-to-market, and IBM’s larger clients.

The programme has three levels, and each has been built keeping in mind the specific requirements of startups at various stages of their growth.

  • Starter - Eligible for any startup less than five years old. These are early-stage startups and are still at a concept or building stage of their business.
  • Builder - These startups have moved beyond the concept stage and are mostly at the production level. They get access to $1,000 per month of credits on IBM Cloud for a year.
  • Premium - This is for startups which are at a maturity curve and are extensively using innovative technologies like Blockchain, Watson, etc. They get access to $10,000 per month of credits on IBM Cloud for a year. They are further eligible for help from IBM Developer Advocates, including architecture reviews, and whiteboarding sessions.

We work with many startups across fintech, healthtech, deep tech, smart cities, skilling, and edtech that are leveraging technologies like IoT, Watson, Blockchain and Cloud to build their businesses.

YS: What initiatives are being undertaken in your association with Kalaari Capital?

SK: We collaborated with startup incubator Kstart, an initiative of Indian venture capital firm Kalaari Capital, to offer training and mentoring sessions to Indian startups. We conduct workshops with many startups around AI, IoT and other cutting-edge technologies. Additionally, eligible startups get access to GEP.

IBM business leaders and technology experts help Kstart portfolio companies create go-to-market strategies, achieve market alignment, and augment their technology roadmaps. IBM also invites Kstart participants to various training sessions on cognitive learning, analytics, product design and design thinking.

YS: What kind of concepts/products/services are being developed by startups under the Global Entrepreneur Program?

SK: We work with multiple startups building innovative products/solutions leveraging emerging technologies like AI, ML, blockchain and more. Few startups that are part of the Global Entrepreneurship Program and are working on innovative ideas include: MikeLegal (an AI-based legal research platform), PayMatrix (an online rent management platform), Buzzopinion (an AI-powered recommendations engine which crunches opinions from across the web to give you personalised suggestions for movies, shopping, travel, food and more), TrackMyBeat (a cloud-based health and wellness management system), Transneuron (a Learn-to-Launch startup transforming students into skilled professionals).

YS: Is the Indian government warming up to these new technologies?

SK: The government is at the forefront of adopting new age technologies. Until last year, it was looking at various pilot projects. But, we believe 2018 will see more widespread adoption. The Union Budget 2018 was a testament to that. The combination of new age technologies, data advantage, and the right skilling investments will go a long way into making India a superpower. The impetus to smart cities, broadband access and enhanced Digital India allocation is further driving the adoption of AI, ML, Blockchain and will lead to greater access and empowerment to the citizens of the country. 

YS: Does India have enough talent in this space? Are there enough programmes and courses on Blockchain, AI, deep learning, etc? How can companies aid in this regard?

SK: Skills have emerged as the new currency for all industries.

Organisations must focus on re-strategising and realigning their resources to favour the use of innovative technology and harbour skills that can help in digital disruption. There is a strong need for collaboration between tech companies, developer communities, academia and government to reform education policies and strategies to address the pertinent skill gap.

IBM hosts a digital learning platform called Cognitive Class that offers several self-paced courses across these key technology areas. We also work with universities, enterprises, startups, industry bodies and ministries to offer various initiatives and courses. These involve data sciences, machine learning, analytics, web development, skills training, entrepreneurship and so on.

YS: How easy or difficult is it for a legacy organisation like IBM to adapt to the emerging needs of a new tech universe? What is the cost of staying relevant in these times?

SK: We have reinvented IBM for the next era of business and technology, one that is driven by data. The lessons of our own transformation better position us to help our clients through their own. It is important to remember why we embarked on this journey of transformation. It had nothing to do with the economic downturn or with fixing something broken. Rather, our experience over more than a century has trained us to be vigilant.

We began to see that the IT industry would radically reorder, driven by the phenomenon of data, the maturation of cloud computing and the emergence of AI. We were convinced that the source of value — for our clients and for our owners — would shift, and that the convergence of these innovations would usher in a new era in both technology and business.

We didn’t wait. We got out of commoditising businesses — trimming $8 billion from our top line (and nothing from our bottom line) over the past five years. We redoubled our efforts to reinvent our core hardware, software and services franchises, while investing to create new ones — in cloud, data, cognitive, security and other businesses that comprise our strategic imperatives. We did this not only to manage a portfolio of businesses, but to build the integrated capability that our clients would need for the new era.

IBM today is uniquely positioned to help clients as they look to leverage data and AI to become smarter businesses. The changes we’ve gone through are emblematic of those most companies are experiencing or will experience shortly.

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