IBM's 'Next 5 in 5' List Says Fuller Tactile Engagement Looms on the Horizon

By Peter Bernstein December 17, 2012

Tis’ the season to make predictions. In the annual rush to prognosticate, my favorite place to look has always been IBM’s annual “Next 5 in 5” list. This year’s list certainly did not disappoint. In fact, it has a theme. IBM in its prolog to the list believes we have entered the “era of cognitive computing,” where systems learn instead of passively relying on programming. They and others are in a race to “push the boundaries of human limitations to enhance and augment our senses with machine learning, artificial intelligence (AI), advanced speech recognition and more.” Thus, all of those on the list are about expanding our tactile engagement with the world around us.  

As IBM CIO, Bernard Meyerson explains on his blog about the 5 in 5 list, which is one manifestation of IBM’s Smarter Planet agenda, that:

“These five predictions show how cognitive technologies can improve our lives, and they’re windows into a much bigger landscape –the coming era of cognitive systems. In the coming years, computers will become even more adept at dealing with complexity…They’ll learn by interacting with data in all of its forms–numbers, text, video, etc. And, increasingly, they’ll be designed so they think more like the humans…But the point isn’t to replicate human brains… Rather, in the era of cognitive systems, humans and machines will collaborate to produce better results–each bringing their own superior skills to the partnership. The machines will be more rational and analytic. We’ll provide the judgment, empathy, moral compass and creativity.”

The five areas cover all of our senses. Each area has not only a description, but also a short video that goes with it. The categories are:

  • Touch: You will be able to touch through your phone. Infrared and haptic technologies will enable a smartphone's touchscreen technology and vibration capabilities to simulate the physical sensation of touching something.
  • Sight: A pixel will be worth a thousand words. In the future, computer vision might save a life by analyzing patterns to make sense of visuals in the context of big data.
  • Hearing: Computers will hear what matters. Sensors that pick up sound patterns and frequency changes will be able to predict changes in something’s status. IBM notes that by analyzing verbal traits and including multi-sensory information, machine hearing and speech recognition could even be sensitive enough to advance dialogue across languages and cultures.
  • Taste: Digital taste buds will help you eat smarter. In the works: a way to compute "perfect" meals using an algorithmic recipe of favorite flavors and optimal nutrition.
  • Smell: Computers will have a sense of smell. Sensors will detect and distinguish odors: a chemical, a biomarker, even molecules in the breath that affect personal health.

The communications context

I have long contended that the history of communications is not that hard to follow. Up until Morse, Marconi and Bell, the history of distance-sensitive communications was an adjunct of the history transportation. What those three did was change the paradigm under which we still operate, which is that distance communications is about the ability to replicate, and now enhance, the tactile experiences we have during close proximity interactions. This includes the ability display and manipulate the information as well to make the experiences more “immersive,” i.e. more context-rich.

In fact, it has long been my belief that the two technology visionaries of the last century were William Hanna and Joseph Barbera. The creators of multiple popular cartoon characters, I firmly believe that if you understand the difference between the worlds of the Flintstones and the Jetsons you understand the history of communications. After all, we have gone from dots and dashes to communicate to black and white video to HD and from one device in the home to many in the home and on us. We now have high-fidelity voice and visuals, and IBM has given us a roadmap for what comes next. In fact, it turns out you could have predicted the era of cognitive computing just from watching cartoons.   

Two things are likely given the focus of IBM and others on cognitive computing. First, today’s smartphones are going to look very primitive in the not too distant future. Second, the classic 1987 movie, The Jetsons Meet the Flintstones, is instructive. The lesson seems to be that smarter technology (particularly that with better tactile engagement) does not necessarily make humans smarter. That said, it looks like if nothing else it will help make doing things from communications to household chores a bit easier. 

One can only speculate as to whether the old axiom, “with great knowledge comes great power,” is true, and if as the science fiction movies foretell that we are going to have our hands full when computers are really smart and are communicating with each other and cut us out of the loop.




Edited by Brooke Neuman
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