Dec. 19, 2011 at 9:58 AM ET
Nothing focuses your attention on the future like a forecast, especially when it comes to the technologies that will be changing daily life in the years to come. Five years, to be exact. That's why forecasts like IBM's annual "Five in Five" are so thought-provoking, even if they're occasionally wrong.
Actually, IBM's record is pretty good: This month marks the five-year anniversary of IBM's first list of five technologies that were expected to make the most impact in five years' time. The company nailed 2006's predictions on the rise of telemedicine, location-aware mobile devices, real-time speech translation and nanotechnology. But the fifth prediction, which focused on the rise of virtual 3-D environments, hasn't worked out the way IBM expected. Sure, Second Life is still around — in fact, I'll be hosting my next "Virtually Speaking Science" show in Second Life on Jan. 4. But such virtual worlds haven't become the principal vehicle for real-world commerce ... yet.
"It's not perfect," admitted Bernie Meyerson, IBM's vice president of innovation. Sometimes the company's researchers latch onto a idea whose time has not yet come, and perhaps never will. But for the most part, "this stuff has actually panned out a lot," Meyerson said.
Is technological progress always a good thing? Not necessarily, if you're talking about key-logging software on mobile devices, or government-supported spyware. The latest predictions from IBM, issued today, have lots of potential for a dreams-vs.-nightmares debate:
1. People power will come to life: Devices will be built to capture the power generated as you jog, or ride your bike, or run water through the pipes of your home. Even the heat that builds up in your computer's circuitry could be harvested rather than going to waste. Engineers have already developed electricity-generating backpacks and shoes that could build up enough juice to power the electronic devices you carry around with you. On the other end of the scale, IBM researchers in Ireland are already working on ocean wave-power projects.
The down side? It's tricky to design devices that produce enough power to make them cost-effective — and at the same time comfortable to wear. A lot of people already feel tied down by technology. Will they be willing to pile on the extra bulk of power-generating contraptions? Will the future economics of energy justify micro-power harvesting?
2. You will never need a password again: Instead of trying to keep track of all those different passwords for your online accounts, and still worrying that someone will break in and steal your identity, we'll find ourselves actually using technologies such as iris recognition, face recognition and voice recognition to log in. "The world of biometrics is coming," Meyerson said.
The down side? It sounds a little creepy, like the world of the movie "The Minority Report," and it could be seen as another intrusion on personal privacy. Meyerson, however, argues that "you can deal with the creep-out factor" by making sure users have the freedom to opt in or opt out of biometric identity systems. The keys to your identity could be kept on your device rather than in a central repository. And using multiple methods — for example, iris plus voice — would make it astronomically unlikely that someone could crack your code. "Personally, I think the risk is far greater not doing this," Meyerson said.
3. Mind reading is no longer science fiction: This prediction isn't about psychic powers. For years, researchers have worked on ways to control robotic arms or blips on a computer by reading brain signals — and IBM thinks that technology will be ready for prime time (or drive time) within the next five years. That would be particularly good news for quadriplegics and "locked-in" patients looking for better ways to interact with the outside world. It might lead to better approaches to medical concerns ranging from autism to stroke rehabilitation. And think of the cool video games you could be playing when you just have to think something to make it so. Meyerson said companies such as Emotiv Lifesciences are already preparing the way for this brave new world.
The down side? Once you give someone direct access to your brain, wouldn't it be at least theoretically possible to eavesdrop on your innermost thoughts? "People worry about something that will interpret your brain," Meyerson said. "That's not what we're talking about here." But as long as we're talking about science fiction becoming reality, we'd better keep the dark side of the sci-fi story in mind as well.
4. The digital divide will cease to exist: IBM suggests that the cost of smartphones and online services will become so low that everyone will be plugged into the global network. "It's gotten to the point where it's cheaper to have a cell phone than to have a bank account," Meyerson said. The gap between haves and have-nots will fade away in the digital world. IBM researchers are already working to make this vision a reality. In India, they're helping to create technologies that allow even illiterate and semi-literate people to use mobile devices for basic services.
The down side? Who'll be in charge of this digital paradise for the haves? Privacy advocates might see this as a fresh cause for concern. As governments rely increasingly on digital networks to distribute services, will life become that much more difficult for those who are unable or unwilling to plug in?
5. Junk mail will become priority mail: This is the flip side of junk-mail filters. Computerized systems for filtering information will become so adept at reading your preferences that they'll become true digital assistants, presenting you with the data that you need (or want) to know while blocking the junk. In the next five years, you'll have the technology that turned the Watson supercomputer into a "Jeopardy" quiz-show champion at your fingertips. Watson might even take the initiative — for example, by putting tickets to a concert by your favorite band on hold the moment they go on sale, even before you've heard about it.
The down side? What if your personal digital assistant turns out to be a paranoid HAL 9000 instead of a helpful Watson? What if Watson goes rogue with your credit-card number? And what about the privacy concerns? Ten years from now, will the authorities be able to learn all about you by tapping into your junk-mail filter?
Are IBM's latest "Five in Five" predictions hits or misses? Visions of paradise, or another circle of hell? Feel free to weigh in with your comments below, and check out these past predictions:
Alan Boyle is msnbc.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding the Cosmic Log page to your Google+ presence. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.