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Welcome to IBM Watson’s Internet of Things HQ, where the office is an ecosystem and AI is ‘augmented intelligence’

If there was any doubt that IBM is committed to developing the internet of things, its opening of a new 15,000sqm headquarters in Munich surely clears it.

In the pipeline for almost two years, the German HQ – IBM’s first ever outside of the US – didn’t come cheap, and the brand wants you to know it. “The biggest investment we’ve made in years” or even “decades” were phrases banded around the opening press conference, as was the $200m price tag.

Inside offers up more than 25 floors of collaborative space for both IBM workers and its partners. But towering above the Munich skyline, the building also acts as a warning to the global tech industry that the IT behemoth is readying to own the Internet of Things space in the same way it has allowed Watson to near-dominate the AI conversation.

“I think it’s a symbolic opening,” Niklaus Waser, the head of the centre, told The Drum. “It’s a new chapter we’re opening. We’re not just moving into an existing IBM location, it’s something that’s brand new. [We think] if you want to know more about the future, create it.”

The HQ itself practises what it preaches, with prototyped or fully-functioning IoT devices installed in as many places as possible. As a huge amount of workers and contractors from different companies will be moving in and out of the building as projects begin and end, hot desking is a necessity, but the process is made easier with tech that can communicate which seats are free in real time, and lights have been installed to guide visitors to their desk.

Watson IoT detects who is seated in which spot, and then automatically adjusts temperature and lighting to that user’s preference. There’s a voice activation automated interface for almost every office function – from chrome casting a presentation to opening a window – and IBM has even attempted to prevent lunchtime scrambles in the cafeteria, with an infrared sensor that visually displays how busy the eatery is on every floor.

The brand is confident that no other company is doing what it is doing in the IoT space, particularly since it announced an impressively long list of partner brands, spanning startup platform Indiegogo to payments giant Visa. It’s distinguishing itself from the pack with a three-pronged, multichannel approach; as Waser explained: “What we are going for here is not just a platform or an application or not just a solution – we look at all three areas. I do not know of a member in the IoT market that is looking at all three elements in the same way.”

Similarly AI is no longer artificial intelligence for IBM but “augmented intelligence” –perhaps a PR tactic designed to soften the consumer fear of robots hatched from sci-fi films and doomsday articles.

“We call it augmented intelligence because it’s not that the system should replace the human in their decisions, but that the system should support the human in making the decisions,” explained Waser.

Perhaps, IBM appears to be the driving force in the IoT space because of its decision to shout the loudest about its work. It’s a trait that’s characterised in opening an innovation space in the middle of a city in the middle of Europe, and not in a windowless warehouse off the beaten track, or in the dense midst of Silicon Valley. Resolving to open the space to a wide range of collaborators will surely only widen IBM’s conversation further.

“[We won’t say] ‘we are done’ at some point in time,” said Waser. “We’re kicking off, we’re activating our centre and we’ve started a movement. We do not know where it will end because there are so many partners around us that who are also looking for their solutions for their clients.

“I think we just opened a new chapter, not just for IBM but for the IoT market, and we are proud to lead this.”

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Katie Deighton

Katie Deighton is The Drum’s senior reporter - creative and video based in London. She produces, films, presents and edits the title’s editorial video output, including series such as On The Scene, Ad Breakers and Why I Left Advertising, and manages its coverage of the creative sector. She also reports on the intersection between politics and marketing, as well as the third sector and fashion.

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