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IBM Next 5 in 5: cognitive computing to redefine sensory experiences

Computing has made huge strides in the last few years, but one innovation that is still a work in progress is the ability to get our computers to think cognitively. In its annual Next 5 in 5 list, IBM today argued that we're now on the verge of entering an "era of cognitive computing" that will include "machines that can help us think."

The company's "Watson" computer, which made headlines for its impressive performance on Jeopardy last year, was "a turning point," Bernard Meyerson, IBM's chief innovation officer, wrote in a blog post.

"But while Watson can understand all manner of things and learns from its interactions with data and humans, it is just a first step into a new era of computing that's going to produce machines that are as distinct from today's computers as those computers are from the mechanical tabulating devices that preceded them," Meyerson continued.

"A host of technologies are coming that will help us overcome our limitations and will transform the way we interact with machines and with each other," he added.

That includes computers that will be able to handle right-brained activities, like sensing.

"We see the beginnings of sensing machines in self-parking cars and biometric security – and the future is wide open," Meyerson said.

As a result, this year's "5 in 5" (see video, below) focuses on how computers will come to mimic the senses in the near future, with IBM predicting the following developments:


You will be able to reach out and touch through your phone, IBM said. Not sure if the fabric of the skirt you're looking at online is what you have in mind? Your phone will "distinguish fabrics, textures, and weaves so that you can feel a sweater, jacket, or upholstery – right through the screen," IBM said. The basic premise is that scientists could vibrate the air "to feel like something solid."


Humans are able to look at an object and understand what it is, but computers "can't replicate something as complex as sight," said John Smith, senior manager for IBM's Intelligent Information Management. "But by taking a cognitive approach, and showing a computer thousands of examples of a particular scene, the computer can start to detect patterns that matter, whether it's in a scanned photograph uploaded to the web, or some video footage taken with a camera phone," he wrote


Dimitri Kanevsky, an IBM master inventor, discussed a world where an app on your smartphone could tell you the meaning behind your baby's cry or a pet dog's bark.


IBM's Dr. Lav Varshney, a research scientist with the company's Services Research, said he basically wants to figure out "what's good for humans." IBM has been looking at designing recipes or other things that taste good and are healthy. Varshney pointed to a school lunch, where the kids eat the brownie and throw everything else out. "What we want to do is actually make the whole meal very flavourful [to achieve] the nutritional objectives," he said. An app in the future could know your medical history but also your personalised tastes. Scientists might be able to model what satisfies the sweet tooth of a diabetic, for example.


"Within the next five years, your mobile device will likely be able to tell you you're getting a cold before your very first sneeze," thanks to the biomarkers you expel with every breath, said Hendrik F. Hamann, a research manager in physical analytics at IBM. Meanwhile, "tiny sensors that 'smell' can be integrated into cell phones and other mobile devices, feeding information contained on the biomarkers to a computer system that can analyse the data."

Are IBM's predictions likely to prove accurate? Decide for yourself: last year, the iconic computing firm predicted that passwords would be replaced by biometric data-based security measures, mind reading technology would enter the mainstream, and so-called 'junk' email would see improved click-through rates as online advertising benefited from more advanced analytics.