How does progress happen?  That is the initial question that greets users of IBM’s free THINK app for iPad (the app is also available for Android).  For those who love technology, science  and the history of both, it is the entrée to a fascinating collection of resources put together in an engaging, thought-provoking display.

The presentation begins with the 10-minute Think film, which can be downloaded to the iPad (161MB) or streamed (from YouTube—the far better choice if your connection allows it).  The video is a split-screen, multi-camera piece provides a glimpse into four problems that were once thought unsolvable, and how they are being addressed:

  1. how man reached the moon;
  2. how a genome (the rice genome) was sequenced;
  3. how medicine has become personalized;
  4. how traffic congestion has been reduced.

The film is no more than an overview of these vast topics, but the common thread is how “…progress was made by combining people and technology…” by taking a distinct, repeatable approach to problem solving involving seeing, mapping, understanding, believing, and acting.  The five steps this app puts forward as the pattern to technical problem solving.

Since the THINK film is streamed from YouTube, it can also be embedded locally in any web media platform.  Here it is.  (Set the quality to 1080p and play full screen for best experience):

The Interface

The think main menu is a circular arrangement of six petals:  Think Film, Seeing, Mapping, Understanding, Believing, Acting.

THINK main menu
The THINK Main Menu

Small icons in the upper right of the screen permit emailing or sharing on Twitter or Facebook the link to the web-based THINK exhibit (where things rapily stray into commercial provinces), and a little plus icon that brings up the Help and credits screens, which can also be accessed by touching the word THINK in the middle of the six petals.

App Controls


The Seeing area asks the questions:  “When did humankind first see a second? A virus? An atom?” and is devoted to the history of the development of ever more precise tools used to see nature.  It is not a dry, grid timeline, however.  It utilizes a cartoon-rendering of the wandering path of civilization with linked photos and descriptions of major instrument discovery and development,s from first sun dial (800 BC) to carbon nanotubes used for testing water purity (2010 CE).  The number of objects must be very selective, of course, but it manages to display an amazing number of instruments.

3D Plasom Ruler

The Mapping section is an exercise in compare and contrast.  It begins with the question: “Why do maps matter?”  and is a visual presentation that explores the world of maps, and discusses the multiple functions of maps: as aids to navigation, illustrations of scale and structure, indices of change, measures of flow, inventories of resources, connections of knowledge, organizations in time, and so on. It is hard to think of a  better illustration of the growth in complexity and importance of maps than the juxtaposition between the simple, boxes of an 1855 Erie Railroad organization chart (1855) and the Hierarchical Structure of the Internet (2007)—or a better illustration of why we are not in Kansas any more.

Heirarchical Structure Of The Internet
Hierarchical Structure Of The Internet (2007)

The Understanding section begins with the question: “How do we explain cause and effect?”  It presents several illustrations of the use of modeling to “untangle and predict the behavior of complex systems.”  The illustrations include compare and contrast examples of weather prediction (a primitive 1877 weather forecast map vs. IBMs Deep Thunder meteorology system; Norman Borlaug’s inspired but tedious development of wheat strains that led to the green revolution (1944 and beyond) vs. today’s probabilistic functional gene network understandings; the by guess or by gosh approach to oil drilling exhibited by the early wildcatters like Edwin Drake vs. the bio-stratigraphic modeling used by today’s petroleum engineers; and so on.

The Believing section illustrates the human/technology interface.  Leaders give direction to technical innovation, and devise creative uses for practical ends.  Examples are given from reducing fraud and waste in social services to breeding disease resistant crops.  The job of the leader is insight in the interest of inspiration, and the individuals featured in this section are a collection of practicing leaders:  Don Edwards, assistant director Alameda County Social Services Agency, who speaks to the paradox of being data rich and information poor; Stephen Forman, chair of the Hematology Department at City of Hope speaks to the quest to cure cancer—in some measure successful with bone marrow cancers; Yvonne Chan, principal of Vaughn Next Century Learning Center, who speaks to the power of connectivity in education; Paul Sribhibhadh on food safety; IBMs David Ferrucci (Watson director) on the quest to create computers that understand natural language; MoMAs Glenn Lowry on the role of art in culture; Howard-Yana Shapiro on food science, plant yields and poverty; IBMs Chieko Asakawa on improving the web for the disabled.  These are but a few initiatives, but illustrative of the larger concept of the necessity of the leader who believes.

The final section, Acting, is a summary of how IBM is partnering with various businesses and governments to make the “world work better.”  Tapping any of the menu petals brings up a spinnable monochrome world map with various red push-pin locators that represents an IBM project.

Push Pin Projects

Tapping any of the locator brings up a description of the project.  As with the exhibit’s web site, this is where idealism intersects commercialism.  Be that as it may, it is also a great illustration of the practical application of the ideas of science and technology once they have ripened through the process of discovery, development and belief.

The app is a promoter of science and technology, a cheerleader for the same, and for IBM, and unabashedly optimistic.  It would be a great tool to illustrate the development and application of technologies, but needs the balancing insight of an instructor to explain the many obstacles to progress thrown up by the political and social environment as well, obstacles that are completely ignored by the creators of this app.  The exquisite irony of reach and grasp cannot escape even the most casual user of this app.  Here we have finally crawled from under the long shadow of thermonuclear annihilation to a new flowering of technology and science, justly celebrated by this app, only to have meaningful progress squelched by governmental ignorance and the apathy and selfishness of local human populations.  One is reminded of those in the US Congress who willfully ignore the findings of climate science or those who go on paying profligate agricultural subsidies that ruin the livelihood of African farmers.  None of this dark matter is apparent in the app, mind you, but I can’t help but mention it.  And it is the sort of discussion that could be very fruitful when using this app as a springboard.

The THINK app is based on materials and concepts used in a 2011 exhibit at Lincoln Center in honor of IBMs centennial.  The THINK  “exhibit has been placed in the Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection and received awards from the Industrial Designers Society of America, the Association of Independent Commercial Producers, and the Art Directors Club. Later this year, the exhibit will be installed at Walt Disney World’s EPCOT Center in Orlando, Fla.” 1