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IBM’s Latest 5 in 5 Predictions

December 19, 2013


Since 2006 IBM has offered up its “5 in 5″ predictions that discuss five “Innovations that will change our lives in the next five years.” [“The 5 in 5,” IBM] This year the company discusses innovations in education, retail, healthcare, security, and cities. Readers of this blog know that I am interested in each of those topics. Greg Satell writes, “When the company comes out each year with its 5 in 5 — five predictions for the next five years — people take notice.” [“IBM Unveils 5 Smart Technology Trends for the Next 5 Years,” Forbes, 17 December 2013] Dean Takahashi adds, “This year’s prognostications are sure to get people talking.” [“IBM reveals its top five innovation predictions for the next five years,” Venture Beat, 16 December 2013] Bernie Meyerson, vice president of innovation at IBM, told Takahashi, “We try to get a sense of where the world is going because that focuses where we put our efforts. The harder part is nailing down what you want to focus on. Unless you stick your neck out and say this is where the world is going, it’s hard to … turn around and say you will get there first. These are seminal shifts. We want to be there, enabling them.” Of course, IBM is not alone as a company that takes the long view in order to help shape the future; but, it is one of the best known. On IBM’s 5 in 5 website, each subject is accompanied by a short discussion, a video, and a storyboard. Below is a brief overview of this year’s predictions.




Katharine Frase, IBM’s vice president and CTO for the Global Public Sector, provides the overview for the innovation in education: “The classroom will learn you.” She writes:


The classroom of the future will learn about each individual student over the course of their education, helping them master the skills that match their goals. The rapid digitization of educational institutions will allow unprecedented instrumentation of the learning process. Cognitive computing, or learning technologies, will help us calculate everything we can about how each student learns and thrives, then create flexibility in the system to continually adapt and fine-tune what we deliver to that student and how this supports teachers and employers.”


Satell writes, “While not a panacea, technology has the potential to make a big impact and is increasingly becoming a focus in tech circles. From Sal Khan’s Khan Academy to Joel Klein’s Amplify, instruction is being integrated with assessment, allowing educators to develop customized programs and provide real-time monitoring for each student.” The Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation calls this approach “blended learning,” which it defines as “a formal education program in which a student learns at least in part through online learning, with some element of student control over time, place, path, and/or pace; at least in part in a supervised brick-and-mortar location away from home; and the modalities along each student’s learning path within a course or subject are connected to provide an integrated learning experience.” IBM may be a bit optimistic in its belief that big technological changes are going to take place in education over the next five years. Progress will certainly be made, but I fear that such progress will be in baby steps not giant leaps. There are simply too many hurdles to jump at the Federal, state, and local levels for progress to made smoothly. As a result, technology is likely to be introduced in fits and starts.




Sima Nadler, IBM Research Lead for Retail, provides the discussion for the next innovation: “Buying local will beat online.” She writes:


The technology trends will move us back to brick and mortar — but with a difference. In the future, retailers will layer increasing levels of engagement and personalization on top of the shopping experience, ultimately merging the instant gratification of physical shopping with the richness of online shopping and making same-day delivery a snap.”


Traditional retailers certainly hope this prediction comes true. With many malls now abandoned or nearly vacant, it would take a small miracle to resurrect the brick-and-mortar retail sector to its past glory. I don’t disagree that personalization will improve the physical shopping experience and keep innovative brick-and-mortar retailers alive; but, stores are likely to be smaller and omnichannel retailing will become king of the mountain. It will all be part of the consumer digital path to purchase journey. On the bright side, Satell notes, “According to a recent US Census report, e-Commerce accounts for less than 6% of total retail sales. Customers, it seems, want more than a logistics company with a retail storefront, but seek an immersive, personalized experience.” As I see it, just like blended learning could characterize education in the future, blended shopping could characterize retail.




Ajay Royyuru, Director of IBM’s Computational Biology Center, discusses the next innovation: “Doctors will routinely use your DNA to keep you well.” He writes:


Today, full DNA testing to help make treatment decisions is still rare. But cognitive systems and cloud computing may make this form of treatment mainstream. It could be done faster, more affordably and much more frequently. In addition to DNA testing for cancers, we may even see DNA-specific personalized treatment options for conditions such as stroke and heart disease.”


Once again I applaud IBM’s optimism; but, I fear that their timeline is a bit too optimistic for most people. The problem at the moment is affordability. Mapping a human’s genome still costs around $2500 and the most optimistic prediction I’ve seen only lowers that cost to around $1000. Until that cost comes down, only the rich may have the luxury of receiving personalized, DNA-specific treatments. Meyerson told Takahashi, “The ability to correlate a person’s DNA against the results of treatment with a certain protocol could be a huge breakthrough.” Takahashi adds, “It’ll be able to scan your DNA and find out if any magic bullet treatments exist that will address your particular ailment. IBM recently made a breakthrough with a nanomedicine that it can engineer to latch on to fungal cells in the body and attack them by piercing their cell membranes. The fungi won’t be able to adapt to these kinds of physical attacks easily. That sort of advance, where the attack is tailored against particular kinds of cells, will be more common in the future.” The only question is: How soon will that future arrive? Five years seems optimistic.




J.R. Rao, Director of IBM’s Security Research, provides the discussion on the next prediction: “A digital guardian will protect you online.” He writes:


Security is evolving from being based on rules, like passwords, to being automatic and made stronger through us just being us. This guardian will have your back, trained to focus on the people and items it is entrusted with based on a 360 degree of an individual’s data, devices and applications. It will make inferences about what’s normal or reasonable activity and what’s not, ready to spot deviations that could be precursors to an attack and a stolen identity.”


Satell believes the digital security “guardian” being discussed by Rao will be better than the techniques used today because the algorithms that will be used will compare potentially suspicious behavior against an electronic persona rather than the profile of an average customer. Takahashi notes, “In 2012, 12 million people were victims of identity fraud in the U.S.” He agrees with Satell that the digital guardian should help. “With 360 degrees of data about someone,” he writes, “it will be much harder to steal an identity.” I suspect that the digital guardian will eventually be complemented by some sort of biological marker (e.g., fingerprint, eye print, etc.) to make you even less susceptible to ID fraud.


Smart Cities


Sergio Borger, IBM Research – Brazil – Strategy & Human Systems, discusses the final prediction: “The city will help you live in it.” He writes:


For citizens, smart phones enabled by cognitive systems will provide a digital key to the city. People can have fingertip access to information about everything that’s happening in the city, whether an experience is right for them, and how best to get there. Because these learning systems have interacted with citizens continuously, they know what they like — and can present them with options they might not find easily.”


This prediction rests on the assumption that the vast majority of urban residents will be connected. Since many of the world’s largest cities are surrounded by disconnected slums, IBM’s assumption is worth scrutinizing. IBM is betting heavily on being able to provide metropolitan areas with the technologies they need to make their cities smart. Heather Clancy reports, “Smart city spending [ is going] to reach $20 billion by 2020.” [GreenBiz, 6 March 2013] She adds, “That would represent a compound annual growth rate of 19.5 percent between 2012 and 2020.” IBM, like many other companies, wants to get in front of that money stream. Satell notes, “By 2050, 70% of the world’s population will live in cities, greatly magnifying both the opportunities and the risks.” It’s little wonder that there is so much interest in technologies that can help people live better, safer, and more efficiently in urban areas.


I was pleased with the areas IBM selected to focus on this year because they are all areas of interest to me. I agree that each area is ripe for technologies that will make our lives better as well as more sustainable.

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