The problem with making predictions – even ones that seem distant on the horizon – is that eventually, time passes and it becomes clear whether you were right or wrong.
IBM Corp. is now in its fifth year of its Next Five in Five predictions, in which it attempts to synthesize emerging technology trends with societal progress and predict five ways technology will significantly change our lives five years hither. For 2011, they’re predictions include talking to 3D holographic representations of our friends, batteries that you can recharge by giving a shake, and reduced traffic congestion because of intelligent road reporting systems.
Slideshow: IBM’s Next Five in Five 2011 Predictions
But the really interesting thing about IBM having done this for five years now is we can look back and see how the first set of predictions have panned out. Douglas Heintzman is the director of strategy for IBM’s Lotus division and discussed the 2006 predictions at IBM’s Battle of the Brains (more formally called the Association for Computing Machinery’s International Collegiate Programming Contest or ACM ICPC) in Orlando. Heintzman wouldn’t deliver a pass or fail verdict on the predictions, but I’m happy enough to provide those.
Remote healthcare access
The prediction: IBM said that we’d use wireless sensors to track metrics about our health, participate in a virtual check-in with doctors via video-conferencing, and medical records would be made electronic and accessible online by patients.
The verdict: Pass.
While access to electronic health records is hardly a universal experience now, IBM’s vision of remote healthcare portals being used to manage chronic conditions has come true. Take for example the Atlantic Health Sciences Corp. in Saint John, N.B. that has a Web portal its diabetic patients use to track their blood sugar levels and learn about how to better manage their condition. Governments are investing in electronic health records and pushing stubborn doctors into adopting them. Software vendors such as Microsoft Corp. have released programs like Health Vault designed to let people be the arbiters of their permanent health records.
The prediction: IBM was enthusiastic about Linden Labs’ Second Life and saw those sort of immersive and graphical virtual destinations becoming more mainstream. Virtual worlds would no longer exist in isolated silos, but be interconnected.
The verdict: Fail.
The hype around Second Life in 2006 was at a fever pitch, but the temperature quickly dipped and our Internet looks pretty much like it did five years ago, with a few more Flash animations and embedded video. Instead of 3D virtual worlds, we’re spending most of our time on the Web exchanging text and photos on social networks like Facebook.
The failure of Second Life to become mainstream is explained by its abstraction from the real world, Heintzman says. “It needed to map back onto first life much more immediately.”
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If the avatars’ facial expressions had changed to match our real expressions by using video-mapping technology, that would add emotional context to online exchanges, he says. Or if users could enter and exit conversations more naturally – say by approaching a group and hearing the conversation get louder, or leaving a group and hearing those voices fade away.
Meanwhile, social networking technology has managed to hit the nail on the head. “Social networking allows for serendipitous alignment of people that are thinking through the same problem sets,” Heintzman says.
But Heintzman says we may yet see 3D worlds fill more online spaces, perhaps combining with current social networking technology.
Context-aware mobile phones
The prediction: Mobile devices would use presence technology to learn and adapt to the preferences and needs of users, IBM said. Phones would learn about a user’s whereabouts and likes and react intelligently to meet them.
The verdict: Pass.
Thanks to GPS and Wi-Fi hotspot mapping by the likes of Google, our smartphones are now aware of our location within a few meters. Other apps remind us of our errands when we’re near a store where we can complete that task. Bluetooth pairing allows our mobile devices to start working with wireless headsets or computers as soon as they’re within range.
Heintzman enjoyed his devices’ context-aware abilities while visiting Sea World. “I pulled up satellite mode on Google Maps to help me navigate around the park,” he says.
Real-time speech translation
The prediction: IBM thought we’d be using technology equivalent to Star Trek’s universal translator – allowing two people speaking different languages to understand each other fluidly.
The verdict: Fail.
Though IBM’s MASTOR project is still in the works to allow for real-time, two-way translation of free form conversational speech, this is still a future aspiration more than a present reality. A beta version of Google Tranlsate allows for speech to text translation for some languages, but its execution is far from perfect. Even text-to-text translation is still imperfect, often resulting in confusing or humourous translations.
Heintzman says IBM’s Watson computer could help better translate languages, because it has the semantic understanding to evaluate what it is saying. Current translation technology relies on brute-force analysis of syntax and grammar, which doesn’t always turn out well.
Nanotechnology will be used to manage our environment
The prediction: Nanotechnology – literally the programming of molecule-sized robots and organisms – would be used to improve water distribution and filtration, and more efficiently capture solar power, IBM predicted.
The verdict: Pass – mostly.
Solar panels have progressed in the past five years thanks to the use of nanotechnology applications. San Jose, Calif.-based Nanosolar Inc. uses nanoparticle inks to print its solar cells and is looking to produce efficient solar cells as economically as possible.
IBM has pushed the benchmarks for solar panel efficiency in the lab, Heintzman says. Trains in Germany use solar panels on every second rooftop to glean power, showing that distributed energy distribution has caught on.