IBM calls the development the "era of cognitive systems" and says it will usher in brand new ways for humans and PCs to interact.
"This new generation of machines will learn, adapt, sense and begin to experience the world as it really is," the company said in a statement. "This year's predictions focus on one element of the new era, the ability of computers to mimic the human senses--in their own way, to see, smell, touch, taste, and hear."
IBM said the breakthroughs could have multiple commercial applications, helping drive industries such as mobile commerce.
Researchers at the company are working on technologies that would allow smartphone displays to mimic the feel of fabrics or other materials for which consumers might be shopping. "The vibration pattern will differentiate silk from linen or cotton, helping simulate the physical sensation of actually touching the material," the company said.
IBM also predicts that computers will be able to gain the ability to recognize and interpret images without them having to be tagged. Smart computers will be able to recognize attributes like color and texture patterns. "This will have a profound impact for industries such as healthcare, retail and agriculture," the company said.
IBM imagines applications like smart sensors that could allow X-Ray and CT scanners to automatically differentiate healthy from diseased tissue.
IBM is also teaching computers to hear by imbuing them with the capability to key on some sounds and vibrations, while filtering out others. That could lead to a range of applications, from improved child monitoring systems to geological equipment that could predict when a landslide is imminent.
Taste is another sense that IBM believes computers will gain in the next half-decade. While Star Trek's food replicator may be a long way off, the company is working on systems that can break foods down into their constituent components to ascertain what makes some combinations appealing and others less so. This could even lead to the development of new, healthy flavorings.
Finally, IBM also sees the arrival of computers that can smell. Sensors could be embedded within a smartphone to measure the qualities of a user's breath, and predict if he or she is coming down with a cold or some other condition.
"IBM scientists around the world are collaborating on advances that will help computers make sense of the world around them," said Bernie Meyerson, IBM Fellow and VP of Innovation, in a statement. "Just as the human brain relies on interacting with the world using multiple senses, by bringing combinations of these breakthroughs together, cognitive systems will bring even greater value and insights, helping us solve some of the most complicated challenges."
Tech spending is looking up, but IT must focus more on customers and less on internal systems. Also in the new, all-digital Outlook 2013 issue of InformationWeek: Five painless rules for encryption. (Free registration required.)