5 Innovations IBM Says Will Change Your Life

Mind-reading PCs, people-powered generators, and an end to passwords could all become realities within the next five years, according to Big Blue.
The next five years will bring about scientific and technological advancements that will enable entirely new classes of smart machines, predictive software, and even computers that can read your mind, according to IBM's annual list of what it believes will be the next life-changing innovations from the tech industry.

By 2017, the world will have human-generated electricity, the digital divide will have closed, junk mail and passwords will be things of the past, and man-machine interfaces will allow individuals to control electronic devices through thought.

"We're bridging the gap between science fiction and science fact on a daily basis," said IBM officials, as the company rolled out its "5 in 5" list, which includes the following prognostications.

1. People power. IBM believes that one of the biggest untapped energy sources on the planet is human movement. "Anything that moves or produces heat has the potential to create energy that can be captured," the company noted. It believes the near future will bring devices that will capture and store energy generated by every day activities, like riding a bicycle or even walking.

2. No more passwords. With passwords now required for everything from ATMs to automobile ignitions, keeping track of them all is becoming increasingly difficult. Not to worry, IBM says. Big Blue thinks that advances in speech and facial recognition technologies will soon make alphanumeric passwords a thing of the past. "Each person has a unique biological identity and behind all that is data," IBM said. "Smarter systems will be able to use this information in real-time to make sure whenever someone is attempting to access your information, it matches your unique biometric profile."

3. Mind reading becomes science fact. IBM researchers are working on projects they hope will eventually allow humans to control PCs and other electronic devices simply by thinking about what they want the machine to do. Such systems, which often employ headsets that can record electrical brain activity, have already been developed for those with spinal cord injuries and other disabilities, but IBM sees more general uses as well.

"Within 5 years, we will begin to see early applications of this technology in the gaming and entertainment industry," the company said.

4. Digital divide closes. Although Westerners now take the Internet for granted, there are still vast swaths of the global population that do not have access to the computers or smartphones they need to get online. But with technology costs constantly falling, IBM thinks the so-called digital divide will close sooner than many believe. The company predicts that 80% of the world's population will have a mobile phone within five years. "As it becomes cheaper to own a mobile phone, people without a lot of spending power will be able to do much more than they can today," IBM said.

5. Junk mail becomes smart mail. For many email users, the bulk of what's in their in-boxes is unsolicited offers for random goods and services. In other words, junk mail. That problem, however, could be greatly reduced, or eliminated altogether, through smarter marketing and advertising systems that are better able to anticipate what an individual wants, and when.

"Imagine if tickets to your favorite band are put on hold for you the moment they became available, and for the one night of the week that is free on your calendar," IBM said. The IT giant says it's working on such things, although technologies that scan your digital persona and convey it to marketers could raise privacy concerns. On the other hand, IBM says "spam filters will be so precise you'll never be bothered by unwanted sales pitches again." One can only hope.

According to our Outlook 2012 Survey, IT should expect soaring demand but cautious hiring as companies use technology to try to get closer to customers. Also in the new, all-digital issue of InformationWeek: Inside Windows Server 8. (Free registration required.)