On May 4, IBM held its inaugural Think Australia event, a half-day innovation symposium and showcase, at the Sydney International Convention Centre.  A thousand or more delegates immersed themselves in high energy keynotes, guest tutorials and partner demonstrations, as well as fine food and great coffee.

I attended Think Australia as a guest of IBM.

The pacing and spacing was excellent. After registering, attendees had lots of time to familiarise themselves with a large “interchange” space, filled with engaging technology exhibits, like an F1 car and its impressive telemetry and diagnostics.  There were many big booths and loads of personnel on hand, for blockchain, Watson-powered CX analytics, IBM’s “Q-Network” quantum computing initiative, security & resiliency, The Weather Company, and more.

The event kicked off formally with a string of fast-paced keynotes.  Asia Pacific Chair and CEO Harriet Green opened the batting, reiterating IBM’s current global agenda: the power of data, the importance of cloud and mainframe computing, and the strategic potential of blockchain, quantum computing and AI.  She pointedly stressed, more than once, that IBM leaves its customers’ data alone, unlike other some digital businesses.

The star turn was by the Canadian astronaut Commander Chris Hadfield , who stirred and enthralled us all with a seat-of-the-pants account of the space shuttle take-off and the mesmerising aurora. He waxed lyrical at the “eternal three dimensionality of the velvety blackness of space”.  I loved Hadfield’s humanist take on the shuttle being “10,000 ideas stitched together” and the way so many otherwise combative nations come together to realise the International Space Station (ISS).  Calling for “audacity of vision”, Hadfield pointed out that the United States had a grand total of fifteen minutes experience in space at the time JFK committed the country to land on the moon before the end of the 1960s. And he saluted America’s most experienced astronaut, Peggy Whitson, the first woman to command the ISS, and now the Chief Astronaut at NASA. Hadfield said of himself “I’m a musician; I did a cover of ‘Oddity’”, so yes, he pulled out his guitar as a finale.

The epic space adventure was followed by a trio of equally forceful tales of challenges faced by people on the ground. We heard from refugee advocate Rana Novack on big data for better understanding the needs of people fleeing war, assistive technology developer and IBM Fellow Chieko Asakawa who is herself blind, and biologist Natalie Gunn who applies machine learning to research cancer and dementia.

Then another IBM Fellow John Cohn gave us the IBM Research “5-in-5”, a selection of investigations of great potential impact:

  1. “Crypto anchors” which combine tiny crypto-processors with optical sensor arrays to protect the provenance of foodstuffs, pharmaceuticals, security documents and precious metals
  2. Quantum-safe lattice cryptography which can resist the threat of quantum computing on today’s security algorithms
  3. Artificial intelligence and robotics for monitoring the state of marine life and the quality of the oceans
  4. Understanding and avoiding bias in machine learning, especially facial recognition
  5. And quantum computing in general, which IBM holds to be as transformative as digital computing was through the 1960s on, and is advancing with its collaborative “Q-Network”.

I can’t help but notice how four of the five are directly related to cybersecurity. And I wonder if the really transformative thing about the crypto anchors is not the sensors but the potential to embed robust and well-managed private keys into everyday things, to bridge the analogue and digital worlds. 

Following the keynotes, there were several parallel streams of tutorials and discussion groups, held in a ring of “think tanks” and “ideas exchanges” around the interchange space. Many of these featured IBM’s partner deployments, and covered an enormous range of industries and use cases, including water quality and other ecological problems, fintech, blockchain, robots and workplace disruption, high school education, AI in the legal profession, agile methods in federal government, cybersecurity, and identity management. One could only take in a small fraction of all this first-hand; I chose to attend think tank discussions on blockchain and quantum computing.

For a couple of years now, blockchain has been a big part of IBM Research in Melbourne.  The company’s go-to-market strategy for Australia is now coming together, under the newly appointed practice leader Rupert Colchester in Sydney. Instead of presenting local proofs-of-concept, or ­­the American experience with trade documentation and food supply chain, the presenters at Think AU tried to engage attendees in the principles of blockchain use case selection and project management.  I found the local audience to be reserved, even skeptical. They may need more practical demonstrations to get the discussion going here.  

The Quantum Computing session featured guest speakers Prof Lloyd Hollenberg from the University of Melbourne and Prof Michael Biercuk from start-up Q-CTRL, joining Dr Anna Phan of IBM Research.  All speakers were engaging and highly available.  I’ve always been curious about the true applicability of quantum computing – many of my clients want to know more about what this technology is really best for, beyond one day cracking cryptographic codes – and the panel tackled this question earnestly, from different angles.  No one tried to foresee how quantum computing would play out exactly, but they reminded us that the evolution of digital computing was unpredictable and nonetheless profound.  After the session I met some more people from Q-CTRIL and we chatted about the need for more awareness around “quantum easy” and “quantum hard” computing problems.

Think Australia was a terrific event, and realised those national qualities of Harriet Green called out in her keynote: an open-mindedness, inclusion and invention.