A visionary who’s been inspiring engineers and entrepreneurs from around the world. The Brazilian scientist Dr. Jean Paul Jacob has more than 50 years of work at IBM and calls himself a futurist. He believes that innovation is born from collaboration and predicts that in 10 years most of us will have a Watson computer in our pockets.
BayBrazil: In Brazil, you got your bachelor’s degree in electronic engineering from ITA (Technological Institute of Aeronautics) in 1960. But let’s go back in time: who was Jean Paul Jacob as a child or teenager, before entering the university? Did you always want to be an engineer?
Jean Paul: I do not remember very well what I wanted as a kid. I just remember that I was fat and curious. Not that I had the desire to be an engineer, but I wanted to know everything. I was curious about all subjects, from food to religion and mathematics.
BayBrazil: When did you decide that engineering was the right profession that would unravel this whole world that you were so curious about?
Jean Paul: More than engineering, I decided for ITA. I’m 78 years old now and, in my time of college, many young people chose to study close to their families to continue to live in their parents’ home. I wanted to be independent, so I decided to go to ITA, which was a great school and had a very good reputation. That place would help me solve my problems of curiosity and take me for an independent life. And ITA had only engineering, which was good.
BayBrazil: Your international career began very early, as soon as you graduated from ITA. You went to France, Holland, Sweden and then the U.S. Was it in your plans work and live abroad so young? Why?
Jean Paul: This question is important because these trips had a huge impact on my life. At ITA, I met exceptional teachers and many of them were foreigners, so they brought a diversity of subjects and amazing cultures to us. I thought that in Brazil, because of social, cultural, and historical aspects, I did not have access to such cultural enrichment. So I decided that when I grew up I would be like my teachers. As they came from many countries, I decided that when I got out of ITA I would travel around the world in 20 years, visiting 20 countries, living one year in each of them, and adapting culturally, socially, and professionally in each country. So I decided the first five countries I would live in based on my heredity. My parents were born in France, so this was my first country. The second was the home of my grandmother that I loved, Holland, and my third country was Sweden, because everyone told me that they had a super advanced social system. My fourth country was actually a state in the United States called California, because I wanted to be a futurist and California was where the future was created. My fifth country, out of curiosity, was Japan.
BayBrazil: And it was through the IBM in Sweden that you came to work with IBM in the U.S.?
Jean Paul: Yes, in Sweden I was doing something that will shock your ears because I believe that you have never seen this technology before. I was a specialist in analog computers, which solved differential and partial differential equations. The analog computer had 236 small buttons that we programmed, changing the setup of these buttons. I did that very well, so NASA, in 1961, offered a contract to IBM for us to help them design a space laboratory which is now up there.
BayBrazil: You came to California to work at IBM, in a project with NASA using analog computers, right?
Jean Paul: Exactly.
BayBrazil: Talk about how your career evolved at IBM. You have been there for over 50 years, correct?
Jean Paul: Yes, I am an Emeritus. I started as a programmer engineer of analog computers. And then something happened that changed my life and made me shift my plans of traveling the world in 20 years. This first experience at IBM, with NASA, was my biggest failure, the biggest professional mistake I have ever made in my life, which was a group mistake. We thought that humans could not survive in space without gravity, so we based our whole project on this belief, trying to develop a system in which we simulate the gravity force. This failure changed my life in many ways and showed me that we can make terrible mistakes when forecasting things. In California, I expected to find super smart people, but not so smart. People around me were much smarter and had much more wisdom than I did. This shocked me, so I decided to get two Ph.Ds in Berkeley, not to be able to match up with them, but in order to work with them. And from that moment I dedicated myself to be a futurist at IBM. I have developed a methodology to try to evaluate scenarios and technologies in the future, which I still use today.
BayBrazil: You created the first IBM Scientific Center in the Southern Hemisphere, in Brasilia, in addition to the Software Engineering Institute in São Paulo. Is Brazil still on your radar? How do you see computer technology development in Brazil?
Jean Paul: Brazil is no longer on my radar due to my health conditions that prevent me to travel. But it is not just that. I’ve tried to go back to Brazil a few times, but it’s never a good idea. I am very picky about various aspects such as politics, the honesty of the people, and the reward of intellectual value, which in the United States, specially in Silicon Valley, is immense and in Brazil it is very poor. In Brazil, knowledge is not highly valued. Today, the computer science is in all fields of human knowledge. So ask about what I think of information technology in Brazil is to ask what I think of Brazil. In certain areas, Brazil is very developed as in banking and finance, but in other areas it is far behind.
BayBrazil: Which technology do you find most striking today?
Jean Paul: The objects that are at the intersection health-medicine with computer science. Instruments that penetrate the body, surgeries that do not need a scalpel to open the patient’s body, but a camera and a small instrument that performs the surgery, which I call robots.
BayBrazil: Which method do you use to predict the future use of technologies?
Jean Paul: I look at the future based on the six faces of the cube, which represent the six questions I ask to examine the viability of a product or idea. Some of the questions are: Is this what people want? Does this technology solve a serious problem of humanity or a group? Are there laws or regulations that prohibit or should be changed so that this technology or scenario appear? Unless the technology or the scenario responds favorably to the six questions, I do not really believe in that future.
BayBrazil: And what is your prediction of an innovative product which will be created and used by many of us in 10 years?
Jean Paul: That is easy. In 1990, one of the first phrases that I told Jô Soares (a Brazilian talk show host) was as follows: the phone is for the voice as the car is for the legs and the computer is for the brain. That is, I said that the phone increases our power of communication and cars increase our power of locomotion. The computer, then, should increase our mental and intellectual power. And this future starts now. There is a computer that made a tremendous success that is called Watson, that won the Jeopardy game (in 2011, in a challenge against champions). The computer became the world champion of this game. In other words, we are beginning to understand how computers can increase our brainpower. So 10 years from now, we’ll have a Watson in our pockets.
BayBrazil: You are a master of innovation. In Silicon Valley this word is more than essential to guide the steps of entrepreneurs and scientists who make this place. How does one become an innovator? Is it something you learn in school or it comes with experience? It is the result of curiosity?
Jean Paul: It’s like everything in life, through the company of people who stimulate you. So it’s not by curiosity. It depends on those around you, if they challenge and give you ideas. Innovation is supported on four master columns and all of them require other people. The main one is collaboration. You rarely innovate without the help of someone or something. The second column would be diversification, diversity or in technical terms, multidisciplinary, that is when you apply ideas brought from other disciplines. The third column would be openness. You have to let your idea open to anyone who criticizes it or wants to add something. And the fourth and final one is globalization. The idea that makes you associate with something new can come from anywhere in the world. So is neither curiosity nor something internal. It has much to do with the environment and how it stimulates you.
BayBrazil: Do you think Silicon Valley is the most innovative place in the world?
Jean Paul: No. The Valley is extremely innovative as it has all four characteristics I mentioned earlier. But it also has multiple limitations when it comes to law, social conventions, and fortunes made by people like Bill Gates, Larry Page and Mark Zuckerberg that inhibit people. If we were so innovative, there would be no poverty or disease in Silicon Valley. I do not know which is the most innovative place in the world, but today’s Silicon Valley loses to Silicon Valley from 20 years ago.
More about Jean Paul in his fan page.