IBM is a strange company.
It doesn't really lead technological development in most of the markets in which it operates. But it spends hundreds of millions on research that is often so long term it looks like pure science compared to the two-year product roadmap that is the limit of most companies' R&D ambitions.
Without IBM, its natural-language data analysis and knowledge management application known as Watson and the 90 servers and 360 processors on which Watson ran, who could ever have beaten the surprisingly un-computerlike Jeopardy Champion Ken Jennings after 74 consecutive wins?
IBM does give in to the temptation to spend as much effort on creative systems nicknames and publicity stunts more often than other leading research institutions (e.g. Deep Blue beats Kasparov at chess in 1997.)
IBM's work developing graphene and carbon nanotubes into processors and memory chips fills the gap neatly between academic research and front-line R&D.
Its "Racetrack" storage technology is also revolutionary, though I have to assume that trying to use the quantum mechanical properties of nanowires and direction electrons spin to save data is just asking for trouble – like finding an abandoned temple of doom in the jungle and shoving aside all the statues of scientist-eating gods out of the way so you have a place to stash your paper plates and polyester shirts
Once in a while, when they feel the need for publicity, but don't have a system ready they can use to beat a human victim at Parcheesi or Pictionary or Australian Rules Football, IBM researchers go a little nuts and start predicting the future.
As a way to promote its Building a Smarter Planet program – a kind of social-networking/environmental awarness/product development blog – IBM released its latest set of predictions for technology that will be practical in five years.
- "You will talk to the Web…and the Web will talk back" – voice recognition lets computers understand what we say and mis-transcribe it to embarrass us when sending text or emails to people in front of whom we'd rather not use those words.
- "You will have a crystal ball for your health" – mapping the human genome makes it possible for biotech researchers to misconstrue the purpose and interaction of genetic markers to produce health advice that changes at many times the speed of guidelines in the past.
This series was intended to pursue "grand challenges," which it undoubtedly did.
Unless the quantum properties of Racetrack storage allow IBM to retrieve data from years in the future, these are all fictional World of the Future-type predictions, though a little more practical than flying cars and jetpacks, if only because IBM expects to have to build some of them.
- "People Power Will Come to Life" – A great title for a movie about those among the undead who hope for a better life by eating the living, not such a great one for a technology prediction. It's even a little inaccurate, though it does touch on the possibility that personal electronics can be powered by the heat or motion generated by the person carrying them (very Matrix-like, but in IBM khakis-and-blazer, not skintight shiny vinyl). It also touches on renewable energy from wind, ocean waves, hot springs and other sources that will offer their strength forever if we can only stand still long enough to collect it. IBM makes this idea wholesome by referring to it as "parasitic" power collection, which ticks me off.
"You Will Never Need a Password Again" – Thank you. I appreciate that. A fingerprint or retina pattern is much easier to remember than an unguessable password. And, with the right security on the data that describes that pattern, it can be secure.
What happens if your biometric data leaks? If some site holding an image of your retina scan so you can log in more easily next time gets hacked and all your biometric-password data go missing? How are you going to change your password on all the other sites you use?Biometric is a good additional option, but there are at least as many problems with it as with any other form of authentication. Except with this one, hacked, stolen or corrupted bona fides cannot be replaced without radical surgery.
- "Mind Reading is no Longer Science Fiction" – Fine, research using functional MRI machines, which track which areas of the brain are active while a research subject thinks strong thoughts have helped map parts of the brain responsible for various emotions as well as functions like vision and even thoughts often accompanied by motion, like nodding or blinking for Yes or No. And technology such as the EPOC, which senses brain activity through sensors applied to the head and interprets them to allow quadriplegics to control the movement of a mouse or keyboard. Both are good. But the chance that either of those technologies or any other can advance enough in five years to read actual content from the brain and/or transmit directly to it is not science fiction, it's Horror. Most people couldn't tell you what's going on in their own brains half the time, let alone allowing the 2016 version of Apple's Siri misinterpret your thoughts and telepathically tell your bosses exactly what you think of them, or be more forward to that hottie at the party than your spouse would appreciate? Most people get someone mad at them at least once a week for something they've said. Words are far more guarded than thoughts – that's why we let them out of our heads. Take away the guards and you take away what little civility is left in society. How much do most people love to hear the private conversations of others blasted into their ears as fellow commuters shout to be heard over the noise of the train and other cell-phone shouters? Multiply that by 100 and remove any semblance of self editing or self control. Whole cars of commuters will beat themselves to death on the way in to work. It will not be a victory for interpersonal communication, but it might eventually be a good way to solve overpopulation.
- "Junk Mail Will Become Priority Mail" – The good idea in this item is that marketers will use big-data tools to tailor their email pitches (spam) more closely to the wants, needs and habits of people who receive them. That will save billions of tons of electrons wasted by sending irrelevant advertising to every email in the cyberverse. It will make things worse by consolidating all the tiny bits of data documenting our activities into an alarmingly complete whole, giving strangers intimate knowledge of even our passing thoughts and interests in order to satisfy their own interest in extracting money from us. Omniscience is a great idea when the only entity you think has it is a warm, loving parent figure, not a slick-talking salesweasel who collects data on our every passing thought or action, remembers it and tries to make bank on our worst or most fleeting tendencies. How about letting us control our own mega-data? Or at least let us opt out of those programs to collect and use it against us, especially when we have no chance to defend ourselves.
- "The Digital Divide Will Cease To Exist" – No it won't. In five years the Have-Nots will have more digital assets than the Haves currently have; they won't have anything close to what the Haves will have in five years, however.
The set of five predictions are actually thought provoking and represent some pretty sophisticated development and research.
They're presented blandly, and with use cases so vastly oversimplified stereotypical to do echo the quality of thinking in old World of the Future posters.
Stuck in traffic? Put on your jet pack and fly over the crowd? Great idea unless everyone else has both the idea and the jetpack.
Then you're either stuck in a crowd while running out of fuel high in the air, or are crashing at highway speeds into other flying bodies with sharp corners sticking out of equipment filled with volatile fuel and fire blasting toward your exposed skin.
By comparison, I guess, digitized mind reading doesn't sound that bad. At least it would save money compared to all that burn cream.
Read more of Kevin Fogarty's CoreIT blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Follow Kevin on Twitter at @KevinFogarty. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.