The whole world in his hands

Nick Donofrio has played a key role at US giant IBM for over 40 years. He tells James Bennett why technology is the key to reducing pandemics, meeting the threat of water shortages, and preserving oil supplies.

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By  James Bennett Published  December 7, 2007

Donofrio says he is "absolutely convinced" that the idea of model simulation will be realised in "great, unknown ways".

"The whole issue of understanding you as an individual and how you interact with specific medicine, for example, this idea of eventually giving you personalised medicine, these are real thoughts where you blend life science with computer science and you end up with a much better place."

We don’t want to lose our technological influence and we’re not trying to say we don’t want to invent anymore.

Two far more pressing issues on the short-term human horizon, however, are avian flu and the threat of a global water shortage. And Donofrio says with IBM innovation's help, both a pandemic and a panic situation can be averted.

"With our modelling and simulation work we are modelling the H5N1 mutation, we're in the process of doing that. If we do it well and fast enough we will be able to actually predict what it's going to look like when it mutates so that a real pandemic can be avoided."

The issue of a global water shortage is also high up on Donofrio's and IBM's agenda, however, the innovation leader says it could be far higher on the priority lists of several large nations and CEOs around the world. "Next year one of the world's major talking points will be water on a global basis. Right here in Dubai and the Middle East people will be using the word ‘water' in the same way they talk about a carbon footprint today," he says.

"Only 5% of water is potable and that's a real concern. It is not well-distributed and a lot more could be done. This year we started a project that maps the world's fresh water supply and matching our high performance computers with several countries' subject matter experts. We're going to move around the world, the US and Europe," he adds.

He says that he is going to personally ensure that IBM representatives travel across the Middle East in order to become part of "that water effort".

"We go country by country when we do this kind of work and do a lot of ‘dives' in local areas to map the country. So what do we do with that information? All that data gives you a description of the problem, but actually also a better description of the outcome and the outlook on opportunities. No one has the answers but sometimes when you get these through and write them down in plain English you do very well. In the end you're going to be amazed about what the glaring opportunities are."

Another issue on IBM's as well as government agendas across the world, including those in the Middle East that are rapidly diversifying their interests away from oil, is nuclear power. Once again, Donofrio and his huge team believe they have and will have answers to the huge questions hovering above and around such a crucial world and life-changing issue.

"On this occasion the answer lies in technology. IBM has long been working on computers but has now developed machines so advanced they easily surpass the capacity and capability of the human brain," says the IBM-lifer.

"I'm a tech person at heart but I see the world from a tech and from a modelling perspective. We have computers the likes of which nobody ever dreamed we could have. We have the Petascale computer that has the calculating capability of the human brain - 10 to 15 calculations per second. But what's more exciting is that we actually have the next one already in place - the exascale computer, 10 to the 18th calculations per second," he says.

"We already know how to do that and we already know what the problems are going to be. That problem is going to be nuclear energy, and we are going to help the world build third and fourth generation nuclear reactors - that is a very complex process. Issues of recyclable fuels, the issue of fast breeder reactors, how to deal with nuclear waste in a fashion where you and I can be part of that system and help dispose of that. This is coming in the next 10 years, it's already getting started and people are investing money in that."

But Donofrio and his 200,000 "helpers" aren't stopping there. The innovator says that by 2010 IBM will be in possession of a zettabyte's worth of data - equal to one sextillion bytes or 21 zeros on the end of a number.

So what's it going to do with all that information? Donofrio is unable to predict exactly what that sort of power could hold but he says IBM is working on one trend that could see online change forever.

"The internet is so critical but we're taking it to the next level with the 3D internet and asking how do you deal in a virtual world, move from virtual world to virtual world, not just second life but in another world altogether, or maybe it will even give you the ability to build your own or your company's own world, your own intra world like an intranet with its own firewall.

"No doubt something is going to erupt in this space and when you couple that with the whole idea of social networking where you're bringing the concepts of YouTube and Facebook into some order and ask what do I do with it, there is something big happening here. "The idea of social networking is changing the culture of young people, they come to work prepared to log onto these sites and become enveloped in what they do. This is their new world."

Now do you believe that Donofrio and IBM are going to move the world to the next level?

Awards and positions held

Industry Week magazine's Technology Leader of the Year (2003)

University of Arizona's Technical Executive of the Year

Rodney D Chipp Memorial Award from the Society of Women Engineers

The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art Urban Visionaries Award for Engineering

Business Week magazine's 25 Top Innovation Champions

Fellow, Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers

Fellow, UK-based Royal Academy of Engineering

Member of the US-based National Academy of Engineering

Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences

Member of the Board of Directors for the Bank of New York

Member of the Board of Trustees at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Co-chair of the New York Hall of Science

Member of the Board of Directors for The Council for the United States and Italy.

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