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The IBM 5 in 5: A Reaction

Every year for the last 6 years, IBM has released a “5 in 5″ report. A list of predictions that cover 5 major technologies that will revolutionize our world in the next 5 years. The following is a short recap of each concept, followed by comments, extensions, and objections from Gunther, Len, and Sasha respectively.

People Power

“Anything that moves or produces heat has the potential to create energy that can be captured. Walking. Jogging. Bicycling. The heat from your computer. Even the water flowing through your pipes.”

[Gunther]: This is huge in its scope and potential. Some years ago, companies like Nokia and Samsung developed mesh networks whereby mobile users could transfer cell- and solar-generated power and could light up entire city grids. If you think about how collective intelligence is enabling large enterprise and civic systems to be powered by even the simplest of inputs, and the fact that giants like Google have already made major investments in the smart grid, this is something that is going to transform how we live, as well as create a ton of new jobs that can focus on the notion of maintaining “sustainable networks”.

[Len]: Living things are amazingly efficient energy users. There’s no wonder the machines in “The Matrix” decided to use humans as batteries. We’ve started to see small traces of human energy being reused in places like night club dance floors, fitness facilities, and eco-friendly work spaces, but in the near future this most likely will come down to changing behavior, not technology. More people will be encouraged to ride bicycles for transportation versus drive, take stairs instead of escalators and elevators, and consolidating our data usage. While technology will make it easier to draw power on an individual basis, using technology to change behavior on a macro scale is a far larger opportunity leading towards 2016.

[Sasha]: Waste energy, like that being proposed for capture, have been long talked about as being high in potential for distributed generation. While interesting in principle there is far greater upside potential still with solar and with the increased energy demands of emerging markets it is unlikely a localized energy capture solution will get enough investment to make this trend a reality.

Biology = Identity

“Your biological makeup is the key to your individual identity, and soon, it will become the key to safeguarding it.”

[Gunther]: This is a challenging one because there are all kinds of moral implications. Solving crime and advancing scientific or medical research are, for the most part, pretty altruistic efforts. When it comes to security, however, the conversation changes quite a bit. Government agencies have been developing nanotechnology initiatives for years that have created things like smart cards and smart chips, but I can’t help but think about End of Days – you know, all that’s been written about in scripture pointing to a time when our brains and our bodies will be digitized, more or less signaling the demise of the world. Whether you’re religious or not, we need to think seriously about how to manage identity without sacrificing self-expression or personal autonomy.

[Len]: Continuing my movie-references from above, this concept always takes me back to the film Gattaca. Our current form of identification digitally and tangibly are going to seem horribly archaic very soon, but there’s just something unsettling about our genetic builds being handed out to government and private organizations. Today we worry about identity theft, but what if someday that theft includes losing protection of diseases we’re susceptible to, our medical predispositions, our past ailments? This technology seeks to make our information more secure, but if we lose control, the price may be far higher.

[Sasha]: Look out for my genome security agency which will soon be launching to safeguard your identity! While I am half-serious about that we are soon to reach the $1,000 genome (in 2 hours no less) which will be a huge inflection point for sequencing for both in health and security. Bioinformatics is a HUGE expansion area which is primarily being led out of agencies like DARPA but look for contract security companies like Blackwater / Academi to begin to invest heavily in the area. I wonder how Wikileaks is going to rage against this one?!?

Digital Mind-Reading

“IBM scientists are among those researching how to link your brain to your devices, such as a computer or a smartphone. If you just need to think about calling someone, it happens. Or you can control the cursor on a computer screen just by thinking about where you want to move it.”

[Gunther]: About a year or so ago, Eric Schmidt from Google made a statement about this at a conference, basically saying that in the near future, search as a normative function would literally anticipate your thoughts and your actions. There’s a lot of hubris in this, and I’m not sure this is even possible in terms of being “right”, “wrong”, “intelligible” or “imaginative”. Put it this way: Do you want, or can you accept, that your future actions are constantly predicted or played out for you? The point being that there is a major difference between suggesting options and creating those options. As Nigel Cameron alluded to in a Twitter exchange we had just yesterday on the future of moral machines, what would Asimov do about this?

[Len]: To some degree, I think we’re already engaging in digital telepathy. We just have a few degrees of separation in between our minds right now. If you think about two people in the same room texting each other for example, their brains are having thoughts, sending impulses to their fingers to type out a visual word, which then gets sent to a another persons eyes, and finally into the brain. Implantable devices are certainly coming soon, so once bluetooth is installed in our skulls, and cell-phones are built into us, then mind reading will be here. I don’t think that humanity as a whole will be ready in 5 years, but I certainly think that a few brave souls will continue the trend of cutting obstacles in between human-computer communication.

[Sasha]: I call B.S. on this one because we’re still in our infancy in understanding in the most general of brain functions. For example, Chris deCharms is working with real-time fMRI machines to help understand how the brains of people

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with chronic pain react to stimuli and even at his best he is challenged to interpret what is happening. One area that may yield some interesting opportunities is the work coming out of the Neuroscience department of MIT’s Medialab, specifically the Optogenetics work by Edward Boydon which fuses synthetic biology with neurological function. While I think market forces can accelerate development I doubt we’re anywhere near this prediction.

Goodbye Digital Divide

“In our global society, growth and wealth of economies are increasingly decided by the level of access to information. And in five years, the gap between information haves and have-nots will narrow considerably due to advances in mobile technology.”

[Gunther]: To me, the real boon is not so much mobile technology itself, but this notion of mobility as a behavior, a mindset and a way of networking (ala mesh networks) that flattens the world so to speak and makes competition and wealth creation all about value. What kind of value? Social value, cultural capital, exchanges of like goods and services, better ways to trade, to manufacture, to distribute, to inform, to educate. When everybody has access to the same body of data and can link to a similar supply chain, and/or, one can contribute to a collective of intelligence, the socioeconomic divides begin to disintegrate and new markets emerge. In a post-industrial world, this seems to be the only course we can chart if things are to radically improve.

[Len]: Agree with IBM from the perspective of SOME kind of technology being in the hands of all socio-economic classes in the next five years, where I somewhat disagree is that it will level the playing feel. Technology evolves quickly but the reality is that even though it becomes more commoditized, the best advancements are first available to those who are willing to pay more for it. The wealthiest individuals will have access to the fastest data processing, most creative publishing tools, and vaster and more powerful networks of digital influencers. Will a 7 year old in rural Mongolia be able to send an email? Sure. Will they be able to develop the next Instagram? Not necessarily.

[Sasha]: Boom … yes! IBM nails it … Information will be ubiquitous and across a multitude of devices. But the real question is how do we filter between what information is immediate and what information is important. Editing, filtering and synthesizing will take on greater importance as one doesn’t need to look far past the recent climate debate to see people using information to justify just about anything.

Junk Mail Will Become Less Junky.

“In five years, unsolicited advertisements may feel so personalized and relevant it may seem spam is dead. At the same time, spam filters will be so precise you’ll never be bothered by unwanted sales pitches again.”

[Gunther]: I don’t get a lot of junk mail so, for starters, I could care less about targeted ads. I think the larger point to be made here is that we’ll be delivering a lot less messages and a lot more conversations that can be internalized or shared depending on our level of desire and our appreciation for what is being talked about, whether it is a product, or simply a theme that has resonance at a particular time (such as Occupy). In general, the need to push anything on anyone is degrading. In a truly pull market, personalized interactions such as email or chat will be entirely triggered and managed by users or interest groups of users, which means that companies will have to think a lot harder about why they want to engage people in the first place.

[Len]: Oh how I would love to believe this. The fact remains that not all products are sexy. Some of the largest companies on Earth are successful because they sell uninteresting items for a premium because they give them some sort of appeal. If every company sold products like Apple or Mercedes-Benz, then of course it would be easy to only receive marketing that interests and excites us, but the reality is that we don’t always want what we need. And we can be convinced to want what we don’t need. Thus, we’ll continue to receive “spam” and things that annoy us despite how focused those items may be. (Still, I welcome the reduction in emails about Viagra, XXX Domains, and Dating Services via filters which will only get smarter over the next 5 years.

[Sasha]: Here’s a question … how do you know what you don’t know? How about another … how do you know what you don’t like if you’ve only done what you’ve always done? Well if we end up in the filtering and sorting out all the things we’ve never done before we may never see the world from a different angle from that we already see it everyday. While ads may be frustrating at times I think the harder we make it for new ideas to breakthrough the more subversive the tactics will become and the more sheltered we become.

What would you add to our reactions? What did IBM miss?


Photo Credit: Christian Stoll

  • Ben Kunz

    I think the “digital divide” is the toughest IBM prediction to believe. If anything, our society seems on track to split into the Eloi and Morlocks, intelligencia who live a life of knowledge and ease vs. physical laborers who struggle for much less. Everyone may get a cell phone, but the momentum that makes generations succeed based on their parents’ net worth seems to be diverging humans into two very different species. In some ways, we see this tension in the current global fight between the factions of Islamic extremists and the West, those who would uphold religious traditions vs. those who would progress, those who want old moral values and those who don’t mind full frontal nudity in film. What I don’t understand is why after all our evolution, our species seems continually on the verge of splintering apart. Our technology tools are symptoms of this broader disease, and 4G coverage in third-world countries won’t stop it. (Reposted from G+)

    • Len Kendall

      Ben it sounds like we’re in agreement. Technology may level the playing field within the first world, but I really don’t see it creating a smaller rift between the haves and have-nots. So many other variables from an environmental (economic, cultural, and societal) perspective factor into a human being’s potential output. Technology is merely a tool and the reality is that some people are far better positioned to use it to their advantage. Hopefully the majority of those who do, do so in a way that largely benefits the world, and those who aren’t so lucky.

      • Gunther Sonnenfeld

        The illiteracy we face isn’t so much of a digital sort, but rather something deeply environmental — the way we share, interact and contribute through altruistic means. There is also something to be said here to change the element of “slacktivism” (passive contributions like donations to social or philanthropic causes)so that people will take action in the real world. So, if this does boil down to the haves and the have-nots, how does adoption and use of technology change behavior in that immediate environment?

  • Josh Copeland

    Considering all of the very smart people that work at IBM, their list this year feels pretty uninspired. I agree with Bud that it would be more interesting to see a larger market of predictions…. That said, of the five predicted, the idea of biology equaling identity is the most intriguing. Sure, privacy concerns abound – and Len’s Gattaca reference is right on — but I think it will be incredibly important for us to prove true identity in an increasingly digital world. Did this person really write this story? Did this other person really take this picture? at that location? at that time? Is this person truly the one wanting to open a bank account? In the past, our “human” identity was proven in flesh with a paper social security card. In the future, the idea of a digital identity is an inevitability… the bigger question to me will be proving it and protecting that proof.

    • Len Kendall

      Josh it sounds like you’re talking about identification of intellectual property, not just the obvious things like financial and health records for example. With copyright being a huge issue right now (and something we’re likely to cover next on the blog) I think you’re spot-on in highlighting its importance. It seems like Facebook is trying to act as our virtual ID in all places on the web, but there’s still very little stopping someone from impersonating you or the content you produce. There’s probably a huge business opportunity for whatever company can find a solid way to full-proof our existence on the web and give us the option to watermark everything we produce online, regardless of where it may live.

    • Gunther Sonnenfeld

      Hi Josh — I tend to agree on the point about a larger market of predictions. It makes me think that predictions are inherently fleeting (perhaps useless?)given the pace of technology and culture, but also the fact that companies like IBM more or less use trend and sample data and don’t really make these so-called insights a conversation. More specifically, how do the online functions of identity shift as people build personas or change their names or vocations? How does this, or would this, effect business? Education? Family?

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