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Watson's Law: IBM preaches data stewardship as A.I. advances

At IBM's Think conference, executives discussed the importance of protecting and managing data as artificial intelligence offerings like Watson grow and touch more information.

LAS VEGAS -- IBM leadership as well as some of its top customers stressed the importance of data stewardship and...

trust this week amid growing concerns about how technology and social media companies are using consumers' data.

At the IBM Think conference Tuesday, IBM chairman, CEO and president Ginni Rometty set the tone during her opening keynote about the potential for advancements in artificial intelligence (AI). Rometty discussed how AI-enabled services will enhance how businesses attain, analyze and use data, citing "Watson's Law" which predicts an exponential shift as the convergence of AI and data continues to increase, in much the same way that Moore's law predicted continued exponential growth in microprocessor power.

But with Watson's Law, Rometty also warned of the potential for data to be misused and exposed. "I can't have that conversation [about AI and data] without also covering this," she said. "It will be the greatest opportunity of our time, but it has the potential to be the greatest issue of our time."

Rometty said "data trust and responsibility" will become even more crucial if AI advances as predicted by Watson's Law and more companies compile massive amounts of data on users and customers. "All of us have to act, not just tech companies," she said. "In the end I think we'll all be judged not just by how we use data…but if we're a data steward."

Rometty was joined on stage by IBM customers who echoed the importance of proper data usage and protection in the context of Watson's Law. Dave McKay, president and CEO of the Royal Bank of Canada, which uses IBM's cognitive and A.I. offerings, said companies need to be clear about what customer data is being used and how it's being used. "You have to be clear and say 'We think we create value if you share this information but we'll keep it within these walls'," McKay said. "But it has to be relevant and it has to create value to the customer at the end of the day."

McKay also acknowledged that enterprises in general haven't fostered a great deal of confidence in their ability to be good data stewards. "We're stressed right now in that trust factor," he said. "And I think institutions that truly live that trust will prosper in the future.

Lowell McAdam chairman and CEO of Verizon Communications, which also uses several Watson-driven services, told the audience that once a company loses the trust of its customers, "you're never going to get it back.

"We've made very clear pledges to our customers that we will not use your data in any way that we haven't made clear to you and that gives you the opportunity to opt in," McAdam said. "We've seen the things that are going on in [Silicon] Valley now with companies and how they're using data. We don't ever want to be in that position."

While the telecom giant did find itself in a similar position in 2013 after Edward Snowden revealed that the company was delivering phone records to the National Security Agency under a secret court order, Rometty and McAdam were referencing non-government related abuses of data. And while none of the speakers during IBM Think's keynote sessions mentioned Facebook by name, it's clear the social media giant's recent controversy regarding exposed user data had cast a shadow over the proceedings.

Protecting data in the age of Watson's Law

At IBM Think, Big Blue executives discussed the different ways the company keeps its ever-growing "data lake" from being misused or tapped by unauthorized third parties. During her keynote, Rometty emphasized the company's data principles for "the era of data and A.I.," which state that A.I.'s purpose is to augment man and machine rather than just machines; that IBM's business model is "not about distributing data or in fact monetizing it"; and that IBM applies "advanced security" to protect that data, whether it's pervasive encryption or future projects such as quantum-resistant encryption.

Dinesh Nirmal, vice president of IBM Analytics Development, told SearchSecurity the company has taken several steps in recent years to better monitor and regulate data as the company's A.I. technology has grown. Those efforts included the hiring of Inderpal Bhandari in 2015 as IBM's first global chief data officer and the examination of how IBM handled the data of its own employees internally in order to develop more effective policies.

"We looked at our own data lake, which has information from hundreds of thousands of employees over the course of 100-plus years," Nirmal said. "The strategy for protecting data lakes is partially policy-based – restricting how data is used, who can access it and things like that – but policies don't matter unless there is technology behind them to enforce the policies, and there is."

IBM said it's also taken a careful approach with API access. For example, IBM executives were asked during a press conference if the recent Facebook data exposure, which saw a third party extract unauthorized data via an API provided to it by Facebook, had caused Big Blue to rethink how it allows customers to access its A.I.-driven data. David Kenny, senior vice president of IBM Watson and Cloud Platforms, said it hasn't changed IBM's approach because Watson's APIs provide access from applications to the A.I. service and not to the underlying data. Customers, he said, will possess their own data within their environments, but they are unable to reach into the A.I. services and touch other data.

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