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November 30, 2000

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MARCH 31, 2000 VOL. 26 NO. 12

Beyond Deep Blue
An IBM veteran now teaches computers about e-commerce

Asiaweek Pictures

Behind every successful machine is a brainy scientist. And behind IBM's revolutionary Deep Blue supercomputer, which dealt a blow to humankind in 1997 by defeating chess champion Garry Kasparov, was Tan Chung-Jen. The leader of IBM's elite Deep Blue team has recently given hope to aspiring chess-players everywhere by embarking on a new area of research: e-commerce. Now chief of Hong Kong University's E-Business Technology Institute, a new project between the school and IBM, Tan is studying Asia's opening gambit for entering the info-age.

The Chongqing native grew up in Taiwan, where his father flew with the Flying Tigers as part of the Kuomintang Air Force. In 1958, he left for the U.S., where he acquired a doctorate in engineering science at Columbia University. Shortly thereafter, Tan joined IBM, where he stayed for nearly three decades. A pioneer in the field of supercomputers and parallel processing - connecting multiple machines to form massive computational engines - Tan still believes that wetware holds the key to future progress. "Technology doesn't mean anything if we don't know how to use it," he says.


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What did the Deep Blue project teach us about practical computing applications?
When we first started Deep Blue, the intention was to find out how best to apply the architecture of parallel processing to solve complex, non-numerical problems such as decision-making. Using chess as one example, we proved that computers can be superior to the human brain in certain complex tasks. What we have learned is that the problems of deep computing can be solved with parallel processing, and this can be extended to computations used in business such as supply-chain management, data mining, forecasting of trends, and so on.

Why did you decide to leave the corporate world and run the institute at Hong Kong University?

It was basically a process of moving forward. We completed what we set out to do with the Deep Blue project, and I refocused my interests to e-business. The most exciting challenges facing e-business are in Asia and Hong Kong. I'm very interested in developing solutions to how Asia can become more integrated in the global e-commerce economy.

What are the biggest obstacles facing the region?

Asian businesses have to get on with building a computer infrastructure so that they can connect to the world. It's not sufficient just to get online. You need to transform your business. This means having a technical team that can implement a technologically possible business strategy.

Desktop PCs that run at one gigaherz are reaching the market. Do you see a day when everyone will have access to what used to be considered a supercomputer?

This will definitely happen. What can be done today only on supercomputers will one day be done by desktop computers. With computing power doubling every 18 months or so, I think there will be a gigaherz processor on every desk within two to five years. The problem is how to extract meaningful information from these increasingly large databases.

What developments will make this kind of power easier to use?

In Asia, it's a language problem. The natural way for us to interact with a computer is through speech or writing. This has to be done at the desktop level, yet it requires super-computing power. It will become very important for Asia to develop speech recognition technology so that computers are more accessible. Also, it's very important that we focus on parallel processing systems - using multiple computers to solve a single problem, so that you're harnessing the computers' management systems to be more efficient. With Deep Blue, for example, 32 computers were connected to assess all the necessary data for every single possible move. PCs are by design uni-processors, so we have to focus on maximizing their power by connecting their data to the data of other PCs.

Any predictions for the immediate future of computing?

Deep Blue proved that supercomputers can be incredibly efficient. The next Deep Blue project is Deep Blue Gene, which is devoted to researching protein folding and understanding molecular behavior. There could come a day when computers are custom-designed not only for specific tasks, but for specific individuals.

Do you have any interest in leading another Deep Blue project?

Not really. I've done it already, and we won. Now it's onto e-commerce.

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