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The Great Guru: Interview with IBM's Jean-Paul Jacob

O Globo
Cora Rónai
August 2000
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Press Clip: The Great Guru: Interview with IBM's Jean-Paul Jacob (O Globo)

stylized Jean Paul Jacob

Jean-Paul Jacob comes to Brazil and we take advantage of it...

By Cora Rónai

It's not every day we have such luck: one almost entire afternoon with the favorite GG (Great Guru) of the community, dedicated to Info etc.!

There was great joy in the team when we found out he would be in São Paulo and would talk to us, but immediately a problem appeared: who would interview him? No one wanted to pass the opportunity. Jean-Paul is not "only" the best-known and respected Brazilian scientist in the area, he is also a sensational showman, the dream of anyone who likes technology and a good chat. That, of course, is something everyone knows. What many people don't know is that, on top of this, he is an extraordinary person, and a funny, gentle and affectionate friend.

Since we are all for peace, we gave the Official Mission to B.Piropo - and went along to take advantage of the presence of our GG. Piropo and both Andrés, Machado and Gurgel, started the session strictly on time: when I arrived, I felt the only thing that was missing was certain chaos, a ...let's say random line? of thought, and proceeded to fill the gap. Later, when we were saying goodbye, Jean-Paul embraced me and said: "Look, Cora, you made me what I am today..." Before I could think of an answer, he added: "A forgotten man! Info etc. never mentioned me again..." Inthat case, here it is, Jean-Paul, here it is.

(Caption: The PC era is history. The device with which we will access information is not important, the important thing is what are we going to do with it")

The computers are not important

Important, for our GG (Great Guru) is computing, increasingly present and fundamental

Interview - Jean-Paul Jacob

In a field where Brazil traditionally trails U.S., Jean-Paul Jacob inverted the terms of the equation and projected himself worldwide as scientist, researcher and project manager in one of the most important research centers of IBM, Almaden, in the heart of silicon valley. Last week he came to Brazil, for the Comdex SP, and I was given the task of interviewing him. His good humor and intellectual shine, combined with a juvenile enthusiasm for his job completely subverted the interview, that had also the presence of both Andrés (Machado and Gurgel). It started like a chat among friends, evolved to a heated discussion about technology and, with the arrival of Cora Rónai, it finally ended in complete anarchy. With some effort for giving order to chaos, I summarized a few segments; here is the summary of my mission. Mission? I said it wrong: interviewing Jean-Paul is not a mission, it's a privilege.

O Globo: How was it that you, a Brazilian scientist, got involved with advanced research in IBM?

Jean-Paul Jacob: I graduated from ITA in 1959, in São José dos Campos, where I learned to have great respect for science and technology. At that time, ITA had a remarkable team of scientists, who taught us that technology is an exceptional tool for the good, and that we should dedicate to research and development of technologies for benefiting humankind. But as soon as I graduated I noticed that in Brazil being a scientist was not a well-paid profession. That's why I went abroad, where I expected the situation to be better. I worked some time as a researcher, first in France, then in Holland, until I received an invitation to join an IBM team that was studying automation methods for steel plants in Sweden, a project that required advanced knowledge of mathematics for generating a mathematical model of the process. That was in 1961.

O Globo: That's when you got involved with computing, or was this already your specialty?

J-PJ Well, at that time this word did not yet exist, and computers were all analogic. I went to Sweden, where all simulations were being made with analogic computers, that solved ten differential equations at a time. To do the same, digital computers at that time would take 163 years, and I was not willing to wait that long. So I would say my specialty was electronics, and I used it for calculations. But it was analogic electronic.

By the way, many people foresee the return to analogic computing. In fact, application of Moore's law indicates that the capability of increasing the processing power of digital computers should be exhausted around 2020, when computing requirements of humankind will be far from satisfied.

(Note - J-PJ is referring to the law established by Gordon Moore, stating that the computing power of microprocessors doubles each eighteen months). So we will have to enter the era of biologic of quantic computers, and at the end all these techniques are very similar to the analogic ones of the past.

But back to the subject: while I was working in Sweden, already with IBM, NASA announced a project for the first study of a spatial station.

That's because the doctors at that time said the human being could not survive outside the attraction of gravity, and if he tried, the vital organs would be expelled by the several orifices of the body. The objective of the project was simulating a spatial station that would generate gravity using centrifugal force, and the IBM team that worked in the steel project was by far the one with most experience in simulations. I accepted the invitation for participating in the project, and arrived in California in early 1962.

O Globo: So then you lived the golden years of California?

J-PJ I did. And it was even better than you think: not only in California, but also in Berkeley, the source of the "free speech" movement. Of which I participated, was even arrested and all that. But fact is that this invitation got in the way of my life plan, which was to learn twenty languages in twenty years, living one year in each country: I started in France, moved on to Holland, went to Sweden and planned to continue in California, because the NASA project was planned to take one year. From there I wanted to go to Japan. I prepared for that writing, invited by Japan's government, a book on my specialty at the time, controlling. The book's title was "Curriculum and Methods in Control and Systems Engineering". Did you realize the initials make up the work CAMICASE? But what made me give up going to Japan was a complex I developed. Because I discovered everybody around me was much better than I was. Even being graduated by ITA and having received an MSc in aeronautic engineering at the time I lived in France, those researchers knew science, technology and mathematics much more than I did. And I felt an extremely strong wish to learning those matters to a level that would bring me close to them. I discovered that I missed a doctorate. Since I had been indicated by these guys, Berkeley accepted me without restrictions. So I did a double doctorate, in science and in mathematics. And I did it in record time: two and a half years, one of the fastest in Berkeley. That's because the guys around me and those providing me guidance had much higher standards than the other Berkeley professors. This doctorate was developed, like I said, in the years of "free speech", a time when I started to grow a passion for other things, including bridge games. Many of the protests organized by the participants of the movement consisted in sitting at the door of public buildings to prevent entrance of people. And while we sat there, we played bridge. I participated, not so much because of beliefs, but because I liked very much playing bridge. In one of these occasions, the police came and gave us five minutes to disperse, or else we would be arrested. Since I was in the middle of a very serious contract, a "tree no trump" contract, which I wanted to finish, I ended up taking more than five minutes, and we all got arrested. The fact is that when I left Berkeley with my doctorate, I ended up giving up the trip to Japan and accepted IBM's invitation, and that's were I am to this day. With one single longer interruption, in 1969, when the government decided to bring back to Brazil Brazilian scientists that worked abroad, promising to incent their work. I came back with an office at the Politécnica School in São Paulo, I was a teacher at ITA and created a Systems Department at UFRJ, since at that time the word "informatics" was not used. Although it was worthwhile, because I got to know many interesting people, and many of my students of that time are professors today, the thing ended up going sour and I came back to California in 1971. Thus, it's been 38 years with IBM.

O Globo: And today, what's your job at the company?

J-PJ The answer is a complex one... The field I'm dedicated to is a field for young people. The same way I gave credit to the people around me during my doctorate, people who knew much more than I did, I believe people increasingly learn more in less time, learn different things, useful things. So I no longer do research. I don't have the brains to do research. What I have is experience to agglutinate, extrapolate what other people do. My job at IBM today is managing joint research projects with universities, especially the California University at Berkeley, where I have the title of professor, although I haven't been teaching since 1995. In summary: I manage research projects. And it's the vision I have of what the future will be, and in which fields research should be done - a vision respected both by IBM and by the university - that allows me to maintain my job. But, joking, I use to say that in 2003 I will be back to teaching, and the title of the course will be "Computer Hygiene". It will teach the habits one must maintain in order to ensure that the computer does notacquire virus, diseases, etc. I think, in spite of the joking title, there will be something to this, because today people let their computers be invaded by virus, as well as lettingtheir privacy be invaded, when just small precautions would avoid this - in the same manner as mouth hygiene habits avoid that one has cavities.

O Globo: But, back to the subject: you are therefore the liaison between IBM and the universities?

J-PJ I am one of the liaisons. I represent the Almaden Laboratory, one of the three IBM research laboratories in the US and one of the eight that exist worldwide. For not many people know that today IBM does more research outside US than within.

O Globo: In the early 80s there was a lot of talk about artificial intelligence and a lot has been made in this area. Today we don't hear much about it. Was something useful left over from that research?

J-PJ The issue was a cultural one. There was a wave, fed by certain people, stating that the fifth generation computers - this was the term they used - would dominate the world thanks to artificial intelligence. I remember having read an interview in 1985 where a specialist of that field said that in five years, 90% of data processing would be made through artificial intelligence. That was a common exaggeration, which created great expectations. Well, when you create exaggerated expectations and they don't come through, there is the opposite effect: the fall. That's why the field of artificial intelligence entered decline very fast, and in the 90s the expression became almost a curse. But many of the techniques of artificial intelligence are used to this day. A good example is the field of "data mining". How do you say this in Portuguese?

O Globo: It's called "data mining", just the same. They are killing the language. But this is another problem.

J-PJ That's true. This is the result of our habit of copying everyone else.

O Globo: I keep calling an Internet site an "sítio", but haven't been very successful. If you also start saying it, perhaps they respect it...

J-PJ In that case I will do it with great pleasure, because I find it awful this habit of using English words for everything. And the concept of "sítio" is very good. "Sítio", place where the information is. But back to the subject: the artificial intelligence techniques are used in "data mining" and in another area, which we call "intelligent agents", and which is a very important thing. In my model of the world, the office computers or laptops we have today will be replaced and something called "pervasive computing" will explode in the next three years. We will access computers in watches, in "palm pilots", in cell phones, in eyeglasses, in the car, the freezer, and I could list three hundred more things like that. In this concept of the world, what is required are agents that collect information that is at the site of the service provider and adapt their content to the object you are using to accessing this site. And these agents will be using many of the techniques of artificial intelligence. That is, the field was condemned because we used its name too much, we promised too much and did not deliver. But many of the techniques are still being used.

O Globo: Some weeks ago I found out about a project developed in partnership with IBM called "Pervasive Digital Employee". Would it be something in this area?

J-PJ The word "pervasive" summarizes one of the three basic strategies of IBM, maybe the most important one. It's something people generally don't understand. The other two are easier to understand. But I believe our future is based on "pervasive computing", "e-business" and something called "deep computing". Notice two of them contain the word computing. And if you go to my home page, at "", and you read a summary of my ideas for the future that is there, you will find already in the first line a phrase, the same one I write on the boards when I make conferences, - and it is, in general, the only thing I write - which is: "forget computers, remember computing". In other words: the PC era is history. The device with which we are going to access information is not important, the important thing is what are we going to do with it. All these devices will perform computation in a quite elementary level, shallow computing, without great depth.

See below other segments of the interview of Jean-Paul Jacob to B.Piropo during the Comdex 2000 in São Paulo:

Deep computing: "On the other hand of shallow computing is "deep computing", a strategy of IBM. Approximately a month and a half ago it announced the project of a supercomputer called Blue Gene, with the objective of "folding" the proteins, for example, or for weather forecasting.

And last week is announced the creation of a division called Life Sciences, in which it already invested US$ 100 millions, but which will bring in billions in revenue, working among other things with the pharmaceutical industry.

"Why do proteins represent such a complex problem? One protein is a linear structure made by the linking of amino acids. There are 20 possible amino acids for building a protein. One molecule of protein can be made of up to thousand of these amino acids. What the Genome project promises us - it did not yet deliver, but is close - is simply the determination of the order of linking of the amino acids that make certain proteins, like the ones responsible for some diseases. Just knowing this order, though, rarely tells us what makes this protein, or how you can interfere in the organism of a living being that needs to reconstruct it. It just so happens that immediately after creating it inside an organism, the chain of amino acids that comprises the protein folds into a yarn ball, and some amino acids of the chain combine to others inside the tangle. These chains is what we must know in order to generating a protein capable of curing the cancer, let's say, or increase longevity of people. The issue of "folding of proteins" consists in determining these chains, and it requires calculations at atomic level."

"Although Blue Gene will be thousand times more powerful than anything we have today, it will still take one year to fold a protein... and the human body has at least 50 thousand proteins, maybe 100 thousand! So there is this important issue: when, at last, will we able to fold all these proteins, for example, or solve other problems that require great computational power, like "data mining" and weather forecasting? If we study Moore's law and all research on microchips currently being done in labs, we will reach the conclusion that it may be extended to 2020. Some say 2005, 2010, but I believe it will go on through 2020."

NEXT 20 YEARS: "I'll be participating next week (this week) from an event discussing the technology of the future. It's called "The next 20 years", and it's being taken so seriously by the scientific community that the moderator is a first line scientist, Dan Farber. The organizator is Paul Saffo, director of the Institute for the Future, in California. You can find more information at the site The objective is to gather scientists that lead the large research institutes for debating and trying to foresee what the next 20 years will be, and thus, how the world will be in 2020, but not necessarily in the IT area. This meeting takes place in four steps divided in four cities, San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York and London. Two of them already took place, in New York and San Francisco.

"I will participate in the one in Los Angeles, which is taking place on the next Wednesday; the London one will be on October 3. In each city the event covers one theme. The Los Angeles one is entertainment, but the agenda is not closed, and we may talk about other things. During each event, three people present their forecasts for the future - very briefly: ten minutes for each person - and then come the discussions with the audience. And it's an audience of three thousand people, almost all of them very well informed, who pay for being at this meeting, in addition to 40 invited journalists. They all make very tough questions. The funny thing is that one of the most frequent questions is when can we hope to live more, 120 or 150 years. This is maybe the question that interests the people most. But I, particularly, think that better than increase duration of life would be enhancing quality of life."

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[an error occurred while processing this directive] Última atualização: 07/21/2011
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