IBM CEO Ginni Rometty on inspiration, AI, Watson, advice to young women and more

‘In our industry, you have to keep innovating,’ said Rometty about her experience at Big Blue for more than three decades.

Ginni Rometty speaking at HIMSS17 in Orlando

The IBM CEO has been at Big Blue for more than three decades, we wanted to know how she keeps engaged, about IBM’s future with artificial intelligence and what career tips she might have for young women interested in technology.

These are questions she answered via email, just prior to the opening of HIMSS17, where she delivered the keynote.

Q: You've been at IBM since 1981. How do you keep it fresh? What inspires you?

A: As IBM has done throughout its 105-year history, we remain dedicated to leading the world into a more prosperous and progressive future. Our company has been privileged to play a special role in history and to work on solving important problems for the world, from the first automated census to landing men on the moon and now, I am more inspired than ever by our work with Watson in healthcare. 

[See also: IBM CEO Ginni Rometty: Cognitive era is 'a profoundly hopeful moment in time']

Watson is scaling fast and with our clients and partners the system is going to touch a billion people by the end of this year. It is now working to help improve decision-making in all sorts of industries, from banking to automotive to retailing.

And I'm especially proud that IBM chose to start with one of the toughest areas – healthcare. IBM's moonshot, is to have Watson help beat cancer. It is being taught by the very best doctors in the world, from Cleveland Clinic to the Memorial-Sloan Kettering and many others. We are now able to bring improved cancer diagnoses to thousands of patients today and through our network of hospital partners we have extended the same care to remote places that seldom see an oncologist -– from rural parts of the U.S. to villages in India.

It's hard to think of a bigger goal. And that's the type of thing that keeps me energized, and makes me proud to be an IBMer.

Q: What engages you the most about your work at IBM? Were there periods over the years that stood out as particularly exciting?

A: I meet regularly with thousands of our employees all over the world and what stands out to me is the creativity they apply to solving important problems for our clients and for society. We have such a diverse set of IBMers bringing unique views to each situation –from designers, quantum physicists, and meteorologists to doctors, nurses and computational biologists.

In our industry, you have to keep innovating, keep moving to the next big area, and keep investing in new areas. At IBM, we do that – we've led the world in patents for each of the past 24 years, and we had a record of more than 8,000 patents last year.

There have been many exciting periods at IBM but I think this is the most exciting time to be here. We take seriously our responsibility to ensure that new technology is adopted in ways that are both ethical and enduring – it's more essential now than ever before, and technology has a role to play in the rapid economic and societal change that we're seeing today.

Q: What's the best advice you can give to young women interested in a career similar to yours?

A: I suggest focusing on math or engineering – as they provide the foundation to teach you how to solve problems – and no matter what profession you choose – that will be a skill you will need.

Q: Do you think artificial intelligence will be real, and can it work in healthcare?

A: At IBM, we have already seen that cognitive healthcare is real; it is cloud-based and it is already starting to change the way we approach health. I expect that healthcare will be a leader in what we call the ‘Cognitive Era.’

It's important to understand the potential of AI. We think AI will be involved in everything from helping health systems answer patient inquiries to bringing more resources to regions that are currently underserved. I recently came back from trips to India and Africa, and there is tremendous potential for cognitive systems to help improve diagnoses and recommend treatment.

We know AI is growing rapidly – but not all AI is the same. And the term "AI" is not adequate, and doesn't really reflect the reality of what we need to do. That is why we at IBM prefer “cognitive.” What we’re building with Watson includes the technologies generally grouped under AI, but goes beyond them. This is augmented intelligence – systems that work with experts to enhance their ability. Not man vs. machine, but man plus machine.

Our work in cognitive systems is now extending into genomics, and we can scale it and bring this technology into local communities. We've been working with academic centers for years, and last year we launched IBM Watson Genomics from Quest Diagnostics. This is precision cancer medicine powered by Watson, and it will allow us to make cognitive genomic analysis available to any patient in the U.S. through their doctor. Another example of how far the technology has come is shown by our partnership with Illumina to integrate Watson for Genomics into their tumor sequencing process. With this expanded access, we can help healthcare professionals interpret genomic data like never before. 

But oncology is only one area benefiting from the value of Watson. IBM is working with a growing ecosystem of healthcare leaders – from Medtronic and Siemens to J&J and CVS – to tackle chronic and debilitating diseases such as diabetes, ALS and heart disease. 

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