Solving Huge Problems, One Atom At A Time: The Purpose And Power Of IBM's "World's Smallest Movie"

IBM captured a million views in just one day for a demonstration of the future of atomic memory. Here’s how they achived that… and why it matters.

By the time midnight rolled around this past Wednesday, a demonstration by IBM scientists on the subject of atomic-scale magnetic memory had been viewed more than 1 million times—in less than 24 hours; a day later, more than 2 million.

Of course, this demonstration took a novel form: it was released to the world as The World’s Smallest Movie (and was so certified by the Guinness Book of World Records). A stop-motion movie telling a simple story, it was made by moving atoms, magnified 100 million times by a scanning tunneling microscope, at -267 degrees C.

But what explains the movie’s appeal? And what is the point IBM is making?

Currently, it takes one million atoms to store one bit of information. Last year, IBM researchers announced a breakthrough: a way to reduce the number of atoms from 1,000,000 to 12. While this caused a stir in specialist circles, the news didn’t travel much beyond that. However, the implications of this discovery for businesses, and Big Data, are profound.

As with Watson (another IBM Research initiative that drew wide interest), the atomic memory project is an urgent response to the immense realities of Big Data. If Watson’s appearance on Jeopardy! was a demo for how to make sense of Big Data, The World’s Smallest Movie approached from another direction: where to put it all.

While data poses challenges of volume, velocity and veracity, the opportunities it presents can hardly be overstated. We already see it changing the way marketers interact with customers, how police forces stop crime before it happens, and how cities improve everyday life for citizens.

IBM’s work on atomic memory promises to spawn innovations that will lead—by a very short path—to very tangible, clear commercial applications; ones that will affect us all. For instance, it should allow us to carry devices that can store every movie ever made, every book ever published, every song ever recorded. (This makes the once-impressive boast of having thousands of songs in your pocket seem quaint.)

Meantime, outside the labs, IBM has been busy developing new ways to engage its own clients and customers. Like many companies, IBM marketing communications teams have been re-examining the roles of paid-, owned- and earned-media, and exploring the potential of new kinds of content. And if any company has content, it is IBM, and it reaches a huge audience because it makes science interesting to the world.

IBM invests more than $6 billion a year on scientific research, and beyond R&D’s value to clients, we wanted to uncover the dramatic potential of a project like this.

IBM invited teams from Ogilvy & Mather, its longtime partner, into the labs to interview IBMers on a few of their most significant research projects. After the atomic memory researchers showed off the ability to move individual atoms, the IBMers were asked a simple question: Would it be possible to “move a few more atoms?” Which quickly led to: Would it be possible to “move enough atoms” to make a stop-motion film?

The answer, of course, was “yes.” But the enthusiasm of the researchers—four of whom worked 18 hour days for two weeks to help create the movie—was as unexpected as it was extraordinary.

Andreas Heinrich, the team’s principal scientist, was as excited as anyone. It was a fascinating problem—what scientist doesn’t love that?—but it was something more. He saw the little film as a way to make a new generation fall in love with science. As Andreas says in the Making of video, “If I can get a thousand kids to join science, rather than to go into law school, I’d be super excited.”

And here we can place The World’s Smallest Movie in a direct line of descent from Charles and Ray Eames’s 1977 film, The Powers of Ten. The playfulness of the atom movie, moreover, confirms Charles Eames’s view that “one of the best-kept secrets in science is how unpompous scientists are at their science, and the amount of honest fun that for them is part of it.”

IBM has always been a knowledge and innovation company. It has always taken on the intellectual challenge of solving the world’s hardest problems—many of which, in the words of IBM founder Thomas Watson Sr., could be solved if we only were willing to take the time and trouble to “THINK.” It’s no accident that we now see this famous dictum animated by atoms at the end of the movie—with a single bouncing atom dotting the “i” in THINK.

THINK. IBM scientists and experts will continue to explore ways to make the world work better. And IBM will continue to aim to present that thinking with the boldness and originality it deserves.


John Kennedy is Vice President of Corporate Marketing for IBM.

Steve Simpson is Chief Creative Officer of Ogilvy & Mather North America and Worldwide Chief Creative Officer for IBM.

[Atom Doodles: Ohn Mar via Shutterstock]

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