IBM’s Predictions for the Next Five Years: Computers That Can Smell, Taste, Hear

The Citizen's Guide to the Future
Dec. 17 2012 12:31 PM

IBM’s Predictions for the Next Five Years: Computers That Can Smell, Taste, Hear

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IBM has released its annual predictions for the next five years in technology

Photo by FRED DUFOUR/AFP/Getty Images

Each December since 2006, IBM has released its “5 in 5”—five predictions for the next five years. This year’s batch is focused on re-creating our senses for computers: “Processing sights and sounds requires eyes, ears and, most important, a brain—right? But what if your hardware shared your senses?” asks the introduction.

Torie Bosch Torie Bosch

Torie Bosch is the editor of Future Tense, a project of Slate, the New America Foundation, and Arizona State that looks at the implications of new technologies. Follow her on Twitter.

IBM’s soothsayers foretell:

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-       amped-up touch screens that actually allow you to feel the object depicted
-       enhanced computer vision to help doctors diagnose previously undetectable diseases. Less altruistically, this technology could also help businesses detect the images you share on social networks, so they can better tailor ads.
-       smart “hearing” that can analyze the subtle differences in sounds that can often be undetectable to our own ears —from a baby’s cry to a tree groaning under the weight of high winds."
-       “digital taste buds” that will allow high-tech chefs to create new, delicious meals even for those with dietary restrictions.
-        smart computer “noses” that can sniff breath samples to diagnose the flu, diabetes, TB, and more.

But will all of these predictions really come to fruition by 2018? Let’s take a look at IBM’s 2006 and 2007 “5 in 5” lists.

In 2006, IBM anticipated remote health care access from anywhere in the world, mind-reading cellphones, “real-time speech translation,” a 3-D Internet, and nanotechnology for environmental purposes. In 2007, “5 in 5” foretold money-saving, accessible green technologies; technology to detect whether your food is what it says on the box; cell phones as wallets, banks, shopping companions, and more; completely new ways of driving; and doctors using “super senses” to diagnose patients’ ailments.

We certainly do not have dependable real-time speech translation yet, as Konstantin Kakaes explained in Future Tense earlier this year. Furthermore, the 2007 prediction about “super senses” as diagnostic tools hews rather closely to this year’s sensory-themed set. The cellphone prediction from the same year, promising that we could carry our banks and more in our pockets, was rather spot-on—but, as GigaOm pointed out in 2011, that forecast came on the heels of the iPhone launch. Sure, there are 3-D worlds online, but most of our Internet remains two-dimensional. In a look back at the 2006 set of predictions, blogger Brian Jackson pointed out that that was the height of the Second Life craze. At the moment a true 3-D Internet doesn’t even seem that appealing—we can’t even agree on whether we enjoy it in the movies. And while remote health care access is possible, it’s not yet even close to being widespread.

For the most part, these predictions are vague enough that IBM can point to individual examples that the technologies are maturing. In assessing its predictions about new ways of driving, for instance, the company points out that each Chevy Volt has its own IP address, for instance. But for the most part, driving in 2012 looks an awful lot like driving in 2006. In that way, the “5 in 5” demonstrates William Gibson’s famous proclamation that “the future is already here—it’s just not evenly distributed.”

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.