An IBM CTO tells us about three open source projects with the power to change the world (IBM)


IBM Jerry Chow quantum computer scientist

  • IBM made news this month when it pulled out of the open source Swift programming language project to focus its resources on other projects.
  • Business Insider talked to Chris Ferris, CTO of IBM’s OpenTech initiative, to get details on those other projects on which Big Blue is staking its bets.
  • IBM is involved in too many open source projects to name them all, he said, and the company’s acquisition of Red Hat has only served to increase its involvement in open source.
  • But he did name three IBM-associated open source projects that he believes has the power to change the tech industry.
  • These projects involve quantum computing, blockchain, and artificial intelligence/machine learning.
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Earlier this month, IBM made news when it formally dropped out of future development work on the open source Swift programming language, originally created at Apple.

As we previously reported, IBM told the Swift organization that thanks to “a review by IBM of its open source priorities, it has been decided that they will not be continuing to work on Swift in 2020.”

Chris Ferris, CTO of IBM’s OpenTech initiative, tells Business Insider that despite leaving this high-profile project, the company’s love of open source projects has not diminished.

He says the opposite is true, especially since IBM closed its $34 billion acquisition of Red Hat earlier this year. Red Hat is the most successful commercial open source software company of all time. Ferris says that even now that IBM owns Red Hat’s army of open source developers, its own Big Blue coders are not limited to working on IBM’s many proprietary software products.

“The opposite is happening,” Ferris tells Business Insider. “We are looking to increase generally our [open source] posture.”

IBM developers are encouraged to participate in open source generally, he said. In fact, a quick search on GitHub, the Microsoft-owned keeper of many open source projects, shows that IBM has some 1,500 employees contributing to over 1,200 company-maintained repositories (or projects).

And so, we asked Ferris out of all of this work, which open source projects does he believe will be the game-changers for the industry in 2020 and beyond. Here are the three he named.

Quantum computing

IBM is one of the leading commercial vendors developing this type of next-generation computer. Quantum presents a fundamentally different way to compute. Where today’s computers are binary — each bit can either be off (0) or on (1) — quantum computing involves three states: off (0), on (1) or both at the same time. The approach is so mind-blowing, even Bill Gates has said that he doesn’t fully understand it.

This allows quantum computers to tackle really complex problems that can involve calculating billions of factors at once, like drug discovery based on molecular modeling.IBM Q quantum computerRight now quantum is “more in the academia world” as scientists from IBM and competitors like Google race to build bigger quantum computers that will work consistently without crashing, Ferris said. Currently, only smaller, more limited ones are stable today. But as bigger quantum computers become possible and more widely available, the industry will move from “how do we write programs,” to “how do we solve problems,” he said.

IBM is already working full-steam ahead on solving that first question, with Qiskit, an IBM-created open source software development framework for writing apps on the company’s experimental, early-stage quantum computers.

“That project is going gangbusters,” Ferris said.

Blockchain Hyperledger

IBM famously open sourced its blockchain hyperledger project back in 2016, turning it over to the Linux Foundation.

Hyperledger helps enterprises build blockchain apps, everything from helping Raw Seafoods trace its fish supply chain to helping Honeywell Aerospace develop an online parts market. 

We convinced the business to produce this under open source,” Ferris says.

By making Hyperledger open-source, the four-year old project has attracted widespread industry support, with everyone working together to make IBM’s tech into a standard for blockchain enterprise apps. The project now has 200 member companies actively developing it, boasts thousands of individual contributors, and works on all major clouds, it says. 

By many estimations, IBM is leading the pack in helping companies write and run blockchain apps. It is also training more service providers to work with the tech.

Artificial intelligence/Machine learning

Another IBM open source project that is shaping up to be a game changer is around artificial intelligence/machine learning. It’s called the Model Asset eXchange and it helps programmers teach computers to learn the things the coders want the computers to do.

Machine learning is currently a fairly painstaking progress of writing a model — essentially, the statistical basis for telling a computer what kinds of outcomes you want — and then feeding the computer loads of training data so it can learn by ingesting a ton of examples. For instance, if a programmer is trying to teach a computer to identify certain objects in a photo, the computer must be fed lots of examples in different settings and must also learn when look-alike objects are not correct.

IBM’s Model Asset eXchange is a place where AI/ML programmers don’t have to start from scratch. They can take a model developed by someone else and customize it to their own needs. There are models for everything from identifying trolls and otherwise toxic comments on social media, to identifying objects in images.

“With Model Asset eXchange, models are increasingly starting to become more open source,” he said. And that will speed the development and adoption of better-performing AI. 

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