Like Broccoli for Chocolate: IBM Predicts

Every year, the soothsayers over at IBM’s research division put their heads together to predict what technologies will change our lives in the coming five years. (And for anyone who wants to tweet on the theme, IBM created a hashtag: #ibm5in5)

This year’s theme: smartphones and senses. If IBM’s eggheads are right, by 2018 our handheld computers will let us feel the texture of a sweater and let us know when we’re coming down with a cold. Paul Bloom, IBM Research’s chief technology officer, said the company is already working with universities and developing prototypes to test these technologies further.

Smell: Phones will be able to test the air we breathe — letting us know, for example, the shelf life of a piece of fruit or when we’re on the verge of a cold or a fever. Curators could use handheld devices to monitor museum air quality, and hospital administrators could use them to help keep patients healthy.

Taste: Handheld devices could keep tabs on our preferences, recommending ways to make healthy food taste better. Scientists can then be more precise about why some people like certain flavor combinations, and use mathematic algorithms to recommend new ones.

“Taste will be personalized to your taste buds,” Bloom said. “By putting the correct flavors and seasoning on broccoli, I can have it taste like chocolate.”

Sound: By tracking noise from a source over a period of time, a computer could interpret what the sounds mean. The technology could tell parents when a baby’s cries mean the child is hungry, tired or has some other need, Bloom said. (Turns out, there’s an app for that.) The same tracking of sounds and vibrations could help geologists study earthquake faults and marine biologists examine undersea life.

Touch: Using haptic, infrared and pressure-sensitive technology, computers could recreate the texture of the objects in the form of vibrations. People using smartphones could run their fingers over an item like a shirt to get a sense of what the silk feels like. This has big implications for online shopping, Bloom said. My colleague Ashlee Vance wrote about mobile-phone haptics last year. Dermatologists could also use the breakthroughs to better understand skin abrasions.

Sight: Computers may be able to more deeply understand images, including medical scans that are typically examined by the human eye. IBM is working with tools like Watson, the computer that beat humans in “Jeopardy!,” to apply the knowhow in health care.

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