5 things IBM thinks will change the world in the next 5 years

In tech, five years is an eternity. Five years ago, it was 2007. You probably don't even remember 2007. I certainly don't: 2007 was 5,000 articles ago. IBM has a longer memory than us all, however, and based on its history, the company has five five-year predictions as to how technology will make our lives better within the next five years.

We've taken the information that IBM presents and collected it down below, as well as our take on what technology could make these predictions real, or why it sounds just a bit too far-fetched.

1. Touch: You will be able to touch through your phone

From IBM:

"In the 1970s, when a telephone company encouraged us to "reach out and touch someone," it had no idea that a few decades later that could be more than a metaphor. Infrared and haptic technologies will enable a smart phone's touchscreen technology and vibration capabilities to simulate the physical sensation of touching something. So you could experience the silkiness of that catalog's Egyptian cotton sheets instead of just relying on some copywriter to convince you."

We're slightly skeptical that technology like this will be able to do much better than "smooth" versus "rough" textures, especially through a "vibration field" that doesn't require you to touch the phone itself. Eventually, it's a sure thing, but five years might be a stretch for being able to feel the thread count on some sheets you want to buy.

2. Sight: A pixel will be worth a thousand words

From IBM:

"Recognition systems can pinpoint a face in a crowd. In the future, computer vision might save a life by analyzing patterns to make sense of visuals in the context of big data. In industries as varied as healthcare, retail and agriculture, a system could gather information and detect anomalies specific to the task--such as spotting a tiny area of diseased tissue in an MRI and applying it to the patient's medical history for faster, more accurate diagnosis and treatment."

IBM is already leveraging technology like this to help Watson assist doctors. Humans are lousy at big data: our brains simply don't have the scope for it. Computers, on the other hand, are fantastic at sifting through masses of information and recognizing patterns, and we're optimistic that this will be helping people significantly (in medicine, especially) in five years or less.

3. Hearing: Computers will hear what matters

From IBM:

"Before the tree fell in the forest, did anyone hear it? Sensors that pick up sound patterns and frequency changes will be able to predict weakness in a bridge before it buckles, the deeper meaning of your baby's cry or, yes, a tree breaking down internally before it falls. By analyzing verbal traits and including multi-sensory information, machine hearing and speech recognition could even be sensitive enough to advance dialogue across languages and cultures."

Ah, the dream of the Star Trek communicator. Google Translate and Siri are already not half-bad at this sort of thing, but using sound that humans can't hear predicatively is an interesting idea with a lot of potential. A lot of processing power will be required for something like a handheld device to be able to sort the sounds that you can't hear but might care about from the sounds that you can hear and don't care about, but imagine that your phone can diagnose funny noises coming from your car, or alert you when it picks up on termites chewing your house to a pulp. We can definitely see this one happening, if not in five years, then in ten for sure.

4. Taste: Digital taste buds will help you eat smarter

From IBM:

"The challenge of providing food — whether it's for impoverished populations, people on restricted diets or picky kids — is in finding a way to meet both nutritional needs and personal preferences. In the works: a way to compute "perfect" meals using an algorithmic recipe of favorite flavors and optimal nutrition. No more need for substitute foods when you can have a personalized menu that satisfies both the calorie count and the palate."

This is an intriguing idea: if computers can figure out what combination of flavors makes food taste good, a chef algorithm might be able to demonstrate vastly more creativity (or at least, more successful variety in practice) than any human. We're not convinced that this is a technology that will change the world for the better as much as some of the others, since you can just quit complaining and eat your damn Brussels sprouts already, but we can see it happening in five years.

5. Smell: Computers will have a sense of smell

From IBM:

"When you call a friend to say how you're doing, your phone will know on the full story. Soon, sensors will detect and distinguish odors: a chemical, a biomarker, even molecules in the breath that affect personal health. The same smell technology, combined with deep learning systems, could troubleshoot operating-room hygiene, crops' soil conditions or a city's sanitation system before the human nose knows there's a problem."

Like hearing, smell is something that humans are generally horrible at. Most people are actually better at smelling things than they think (you should be able to identify objects that have been recently handled using only your sense of smell, for example), but dogs and most other animals put humans to shame. There's likely more than five years of work before anything more than the most primitive odor sensors will make their way into mobile devices, but especially for disease detection and diagnosis, this is one of the most valuable emerging technologies on the list.


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