Dec. 17, 2012 at 5:44 PM ET
In five years, computers will have evolved from "large calculators" to more sophisticated machines that can detect and interpret sensory data like smells and sounds, IBM researchers predict. They call this development "cognitive computing."
Part of making computers smarter is giving them more and better information. Our desktops and laptops and phones can already see and hear, of course, but do they use that information intelligently? And what about the other senses? IBM's researchers sounded off on all five. It's an idea they've been working on for some time, naturally, since large research centers like IBM's are where advances like cognitive computing are actually achieved. But it's not exactly that some revolutionary new kind of computer is under development — it's more about computers acting with real intelligence instead of just crunching numbers faster than ever.
Sight is granted to our devices by cameras, but for the most part all that's done is recording an image. Work is being done that lets computers interpret images more intuitively, from telling whether a picture is on a beach or in a sandbox to whether a mole should be examined by a doctor. It's also what will let our cars and robots operate safely.
Sound has also been a part of our computers for many years, but again has been largely limited to things like chatting online and dictation. But by listening closely and adding context to sounds in the environment, a computer may be able to tell you whether your baby's cry means distress, hunger, or just a need for attention. And larger sonic patterns could be detected and shared among a network of computers to help predict disasters and weather patterns.
Touch means more than a touchscreen. Your device can feel your finger, but what do you feel? A glass or plastic screen. Researchers are working on creating tailored vibrations that could let you feel textures instead, from clothing materials to someone else's skin.
Smell may seem like a strange thing for a computer to need, but the subtle chemical signals that we take for granted — smoke, perfume, wet dog — are powerful clues to what is happening in our surroundings. We all have simple smell sensors: Smoke and carbon monoxide detectors in our homes. But more sophisticated sensors could detect alcohol on someone's breath in a car, sense early signs of infection or disease, or just let you know that the milk has gone bad.
Taste is another chemical sense, and in the future computers will be able to not just retrieve and display recipes, but compose them with consideration for the molecular level of food. A taste-aware computer could design a school lunch or family dinner that has been adjusted for the dietary needs and restrictions of each individual. From obesity to diabetes to food intolerance, the problems of eating could be addressed logically and precisely.
If this all sounds a little far-fetched, consider that five years is a very long time in the world of advanced technology. Five years ago saw the introduction of the iPhone, for instance, and now smartphones are not only pervasive but far more powerful than they were then. In five more years, then, why shouldn't you have a chemical sensor on your phone that smells your dinner and suggests a pairing wine?
The examples given here are just food for thought, and what we use our devices for in five years may be totally different. But if you ask IBM, one thing you can rely on is that they'll be using all five senses with care and precision, hopefully to our benefit.
Much more information on IBM's cognitive computing work can be found at their Smarter Planet website.
Devin Coldewey is a contributing writer for NBCNews Digital. His personal website is coldewey.cc.