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IBM's Five Predictions for the Next Five Years

In each of the past five years, IBM has come up with a list of five innovations it believes will become popular within five years. In this, the sixth year, IBM has come up with the following technologies it thinks will gain traction. Hold on to your sci-fi novels, because some of these are pretty far out there. And some of them, well, I wish we had them today.

People power will come to life. Advances in technology will allow us to trap the kinetic energy generated (and wasted) from walking, jogging, bicycling, and even from water flowing through pipes. A bicycle charging your iPhone? There’s nothing wrong with that, though I think it might be a while before we see this actually become a mainstream practice.

You will never need a password again. Biometrics will finally replace the password and thus redefine the word “hack.” Jokes aside, IBM believes multifactor biometrics will become pervasive. “Biometric data—facial definitions, retinal scans, and voice files—will be composited through software to build your DNA-unique online password.” Based on the increasing hours we spend online, I would say we need such solutions to come to market ASAP.

Mind reading is no longer science fiction. Scientists are working on headsets with sensors that can read brain activity and recognize facial expressions, excitement, and more without needing any physical inputs from the wearer. “Within [five] years, we will begin to see early applications of this technology in the gaming and entertainment industry,” IBM notes. It will also be good for folks who have suffered from strokes and have brain disorders. Personally, I’m not sure this is commercially viable within the stated five years.

The digital divide will cease to exist. Mobile phones will make it easy for even the poorest of poor to get connected. In the U.S. and other parts of the world, this is already happening.

Junk mail will become priority mail. “In five years, unsolicited advertisements may feel so personalized and relevant it may seem that spam is dead. At the same time, spam filters will be so precise you’ll never be bothered by unwanted sales pitches again,” notes IBM. I have just one thing to say about this prediction: OMG.


New predictions aside, IBM’s track record of predictions over the past five years has been somewhat mixed. Let’s take a step back to 2006 and look at its predictions:

• We will be able to access health care remotely, from just about anywhere in the world.
• Real-time speech translation—once a vision only in science fiction—will become the norm.
• There will be a 3D Internet.
• Technologies the size of a few atoms will address areas of environmental importance.
• Our mobile phones will start to read our minds.

Remote health care is a reality, but real-time speech translation is, well, not quite as real. The 3D Internet: We’re still waiting for that, but those mobile phones are becoming awfully smart. As I said, it’s mixed in its predictions. In 2007, IBM correctly predicted driving would be assisted by software and your phones would become “your wallet, ticket broker, concierge, bank, shopping buddy, and more.” But that was right after the iPhone was launched.

As another example, IBM in 2009 predicted city buildings would “sense and respond” like living organisms. That sensor-based future is finally unfolding two years later. That same year, it predicted cars and buses would run on hydrogen and biofuels. Well, that’s half-true. We have some places where some buses and some cars are running on biofuels. Its prediction that cities will develop a healthier immune system due to connectedness, however, is quite far from reality—although we still have a little more than two years to go before we can say IBM got those wrong.

Bottom line: IBM’s Five in Five makes a nice cheat sheet to keep an eye on the future and also focus on key trends that might go big. I can’t wait for the 2012 edition.

Also from GigaOM:

Dissecting the Data: Five Issues for Our Digital Future (subscription required)

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Om Malik is founder and senior writer of GigaOM. Before launching his own publishing venture, he was a senior writer for Business 2.0 magazine covering telecom and broadband stories.

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