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Technologies that Could Change Your Life

January 13, 2012


For five years running, IBM has published what it calls The Next 5 in 5 list. The list contains five “market and societal trends expected to transform our lives, as well as emerging technologies from IBM’s global labs” that could emerge over the next five years. This year’s list discusses technologies in the areas of energy, security, mind reading, mobile, and analytics. Each technology comes with a short write-up and video. The first technology, in the energy sector, is about personally generating, storing, and using energy. Ben Coxworth, commenting on the IBM list, writes:

“While big ideas like solar, tidal and wind power certainly show promise, the IBM researchers believe that much of the energy used to run our homes will come from smaller, more personal sources. These could include things such as piezoelectric generators in our clothing, batteries that are charged by the spinning of our bicycles’ wheels, or turbines that are spun by the water flowing through our homes’ pipes. Essentially, anything that moves could be harnessed as a source of power.” [“IBM announces its annual ‘Next 5 in 5’ list,” Gizmag, 20 December 2011]


Concerning this technology, IBM engineer Harry Kolar writes:

“Now more than ever, we’re starting to understand the need to conserve energy. With populations growing and electricity demand expected to grow at 2.2 percent per year to 2035 (according to the World Energy Outlook 2010), our current energy infrastructure is just not enough. But our consumer decisions are motivated by factors like convenience, comfort, cost and the opportunity for digital connection. We need access to the right tools and information to make smarter energy consumption decisions, and those tools are getting closer to reality thanks to technology like parasitic power collection and wave and tidal energy.” [“IBM 5 in 5: Generating energy from unexpected sources,” IBM Research, 19 December 2011]

Frankly, the exploitation of sustainable sources of power has been disappointing to date. That is probably because the financial pain associated with the use fossil fuels has yet to reach a turning point. Still, sustainable sources of energy are probably going to provide a lot more energy in the future than parasitic power collection. To generate enough electricity to be worth the effort, you need to use a fairly consistent source of motion (like water flowing through pipes or high traffic areas). For homes, those sources of parasitic power are fairly limited. The next technology discussed is security; more specifically, biologic security. Coxworth writes:

“The days of having to memorize and keep track of alphanumeric passwords will come to an end, as biometrics take over. In order to authenticate our identities online and in person, we will use technologies such as retina scans, voice prints, fingerprint scans or face recognition.”


Concerning this technology, IBM Fellow and Speech CTO David Nahamoo, writes:

“We can take advantage of the advanced technology being used in the smart devices, such as microphones, touch screens and high definition cameras to fully employ biometric security options. While there is already some adoption of facial and voice recognition, combining these and other biometric data points in the near future can eliminate the hassle of memorizing, storing and securing account IDs and passwords and at the same time give users a greater security confidence.” [“IBM 5 in 5: Biometric data will be the key to personal security,” IBM Research, 19 December 2011]

IBM lets you vote on which of its predictions is most likely to be realized. I’m guessing that this prediction will get a lot of votes. The third technology discussed by IBM is mind reading. Although this may sound paranormal, it is closer to being normal than you might imagine. That is, it is becoming more fact than science fiction. Coxworth writes:

“Yep, mind reading. It won’t so much be about spying on other people’s private thoughts, however. Instead, it will involve things like controlling computers or other devices with our brain waves – if you want to call someone on your smartphone, for instance, you will just have to think about doing so in order to make it happen. ‘Mind reading’ will also be used to analyze the thought patterns of people with brain disorders, in order to help assist them in daily living, and to treat their condition.”


Concerning this technology, Kevin Brown of IBM Software Group’s Emerging Technologies, writes:

“This is a case where the technology has now become cheap enough and mobile enough to become a consumer device but it will take the development of some compelling applications and innovative, imaginative uses over the next few years to really make people eager to use it. By 2017, like all technology, the EPOC [a head-mounted device from Emotiv that has several sensors sitting that actually read electrical brain impulses] or other similar technologies will probably get smaller. So I can imagine it will have completely dry sensors, and I’d be wearing it all the time, perhaps embedded into a baseball cap, and with a finer range of thought patterns detected and connected directly to my mobile phone – allowing me to interact with the world just by thinking particular thoughts. In doing this I could wonder what the traffic will be like on the way home and this information would pop up in front of me. If you also think about smarter cities, if everyone is wearing the device and open to sharing their thoughts, city heat maps could be created to see how people are feeling to create a picture of the mental health of a city. Or musicians could create elaborate pieces based on what they are thinking about. ” [“IBM 5 in 5: Mind Reading is no longer science fiction,” IBM Research, 19 December 2011]

This technology is both exciting and foreboding. We’ve all received or made the so-called butt call — an unintended cell-phone call made by sitting on the speed dial buttons. Since we are all subject to random thoughts, our minds could trigger a lot of unintended, interesting and, perhaps, embarrassing events. I suspect there is a lot more work to be done in this area before it goes primetime. The fourth technology discussed by IBM involves mobile devices. Coxworth writes:

“While the world wide web has done much to disseminate information across the planet, its ‘world’ hasn’t included people who can’t afford computers or smartphones, or who live in places lacking the infrastructure to connect such machines to the internet. With the rise of low-cost mobile devices, however, people in developing nations will gain full access to that world. Farmers will be able to check weather reports to determine when to fertilize crops, patients will know when the visiting doctor is scheduled to be in town next, and financial transactions can be conducted without the need of a physical brick-and-mortar bank. The possibilities are endless.”


Concerning this technology, Paul Bloom, IBM’s Chief Technology Officer for Telco Research, writes:

“In five years we will see the massive introduction of machine-to-machine based services. So people won’t initiate communication for information; rather, systems will initiate communication and data to the mobile users. For example, your mobile will have access to your electronic healthcare records while also monitoring your vitals, such as blood pressure, in real time. Now, a system could notify and connect you to a doctor if your blood pressure is out of a normal range. And paper currency will also become obsolete as transactions will go from mobile to mobile. As security issues and banks’ roles are worked out, we will be able to buy and sell goods, lend money to a friend, and more. Countries that don’t have to battle legacy telco infrastructure are leading the way. Kenya, for example, does not have a traditional banking infrastructure. So, you’re seeing telcos offering mobile banking to provide micro-transactions. Industry regulations, security controls, and improved bandwidth and speed (in the case of countries with legacy infrastructure) will determine how quickly these capabilities and services become available. Think about this: your mobile device knows where you’re going, where you’ve gone, what you’ve bought, where other people have gone and bought, and other data that could change the way people start thinking about their daily routines (commuting, shopping, investing, etc.). With this whole new set of data that we can apply predictive analytics to, I could predict how a behavior – say, eating fast food – would affect my current health. Some industrial nations such as South Korea are fast approaching these capabilities. Others you may not suspect, such as Africa are poised to become a ‘have’ in the mobile industry, too. Countries not keeping up (including a ‘have’ like the U.S.) could mean not just weak signal strength in a rural area, or a slowly downloading video – it could prevent the penetration of entire services.” [“IBM 5 in 5: Mobile is closing the Digital Divide,” IBM Research, 19 December 2011]

Like mind reading technologies mentioned above, the possibilities of mobile technology are both exciting and frightening. There are still a lot of questions about mobile security that need to be answered. Even so, because something is better than nothing, I agree that mobile technology will continue its rapid spread throughout the developing world. The final technology discussed by IBM is analytics. Coxworth writes:

“Presently, in the emails and other information updates we receive, we have to sift through a lot of stuff that doesn’t apply to us. Within five years, however, analytics and sensemaking technologies will allow our computers to ‘know’ us, and filter out information that we don’t need. It is even suggested that by combining our personal preferences and calendars, computers could proactively reserve tickets to a concert by our favorite rock band, if we were free on the date of the performance.”


Jeff Jonas, IBM Distinguished Engineer and Software Group’s Chief Scientist of Entity Analytics, notes, “Big Data in context is one of the most significant trends in the information technology field.” [“IBM 5 in 5: Big Data & sensemaking engines start feeling like best friends,” IBM Research, 19 December 2011] If you have been following my blog, you know that that Big Data is a topic I discuss a lot. Jonas concludes:

“This type of technology is going to be real time. Today, smart insight being produced at the end of every week, after a customer left a web site or after a bank already approved a loan only leaves organizations wondering why the answers are so late. Sensemaking systems will deliver sub-200ms insight, fast enough to do something about a transaction, while the transaction is still happening (aka perfect timing). We at IBM are well down this road towards massively scalable sensemaking analytics. And whether you will benefit by ingenious advertising services (versus spam) or better health care outcomes, the future will bring higher quality predictions, faster.”

Once again, there is a drawback to such technologies. In a speech given at the TED2011 conference, Eli Pariser argues that filtering technologies “will ultimately prove to be bad for us and bad for democracy.” The TED website introduces Pariser’s speech this way: “As web companies strive to tailor their services (including news and search results) to our personal tastes, there’s a dangerous unintended consequence: We get trapped in a ‘filter bubble’ and don’t get exposed to information that could challenge or broaden our worldview.” It’s an interesting speech and worth listening to.


In many ways, IBM’s list is a very safe one. Most of the technologies it discusses are well on their way to changing the world already. IBM’s timeline for ubiquitous penetration by these technologies may be optimistic, but I agree completely that they will help define the future.

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