When technology pioneer Alan Kay said “the best way to predict the future is to invent it,” he might as well have been talking about IBM, whose innovations include Silicon Germanium chips, relational databases and most recently, Watson.
That’s why, when IBM company comes out with its annual 5 in 5—five predictions for the next five years—people take notice. This year, perhaps not surprisingly given IBM’s commitment to cognitive computing, the company is focusing on smart technologies.
Historically, engineering has been about finding the “right” solution, which is usually defined as the most efficient option for the greatest number of people. So the things we use aren’t designed for us, but rather for some theoretical average. IBM sees that changing as our technology learns how to treat us as individuals rather than statistics.
1. Smarter Classrooms
Amanda Ripley’s book, The Smartest Kids in the World, had the education world buzzing this year. Two of its central themes were that American students have drastically fallen behind the rest of the world and that one of the chief reasons for our drop in international PISA rankings is that we educate some kids, but let others fall behind.
While not a panacea, technology has the potential to make a big impact and education is increasingly becoming a focus in tech circles. From Sal Khan’s Khan Academy to Joel Klein’s Amplify, instruction is being integrated with assessment, allowing educators to develop customized programs and provide real-time monitoring for each student.
IBM’s own effort, Smarter Education, is developing large-scale integrated solutions for educational institutions. The company recently teamed up with the Gwinnett County School System to create a program that will combine predictive modeling and content analytics with traditional classroom learning.
In the future, every student’s electronic persona will follow him throughout an academic career. So, if a child has trouble with a certain skill, such as fractions, his next teacher will know that from day one and be able to design a personalized curriculum to help him get up to speed, rather than letting him fall behind even further.
2. Smarter Stores
Undoubtedly, the great retail success stories of the last generation have been Amazon and Wal-Mart. By continually innovating their supply chains, they have been able to increase performance while cutting costs. It almost seems that, with their hyper-efficient operations, nobody else really has a chance.
Yet look a little closer and it becomes clear that the story is not so simple. According to a recent US Census report, e-Commerce accounts for less than 6% of total retail sales. Customers, it seems, want more than a logistics company with a retail storefront, but seek an immersive, personalized experience.
Clearly, the future of digital commerce is the omnichannel and IBM’s Smarter Commerce initiative seeks to transform traditional retailing for the digital age. The company predicts that in five years, advances in augmented reality, wearable computing and location-based technologies like Apple’s iBeacon will make buying online seem positively quaint.
So you can imagine that in the future, when you walk into a store looking for casual shoes, your smartphone will be able to search the store’s inventory and recommend options based on your purchasing history. Then you can send a request to a salesperson, who will bring you the models you want to try on and assist you further.
3. Smarter Medicine
When Vioxx was approved by the FDA in 1999, it was hailed as a miracle drug, that could relieve inflammation like Aleve or Motrin, but not harm the stomach lining. It promised a new life for patients with chronic pain. Unfortunately, Vioxx was found to cause heart attacks and strokes in a small percentage of patients and was pulled from the market.
The story reveals a common problem. Doctors treat us based on what performs best statistically. Yet everybody is different, so a drug that might be ineffective or cause an adverse reaction in some people might be safe and effective for others. If we could identify how drugs interact with patients beforehand, a lot of lives could be saved and improved.
That’s the future of personalized medicine. IBM predicts that in five years, your doctor will be able to sequence your DNA in only a day. She will then access cloud-based systems like WatsonPaths that will provide recommendations based on the most up-to-date clinical and research information.
So, in the future, your doctor won’t just be playing the averages, but will treat you at the DNA level. She will be able prescribe the drugs and treatment protocols that will be most effective for your specific body chemistry, while minimizing dangerous side-effects.
4. Smarter Privacy And Protection
When I lived in Eastern Europe, one of the biggest nuisances was constantly getting my credit card blocked. A simple weekend getaway would often turn into a nightmare when I would go to pay at a store or a hotel desk and find that my card was rejected. A few times, I was left positively stranded.
The reason this happened was that my bank was comparing me to its average customer. A restaurant or jewelry store in Krakow or Dubai would seem unusual to their system, because few others shared my habits. On the other hand, places I would never go, such as an auto store in Florida, wouldn’t rate further scrutiny.
In its enterprise data security practice, IBM focuses on the specific behaviors of the enterprise. So if someone working in finance works with invoices and often sends small files to China, the system recognizes that as normal behavior. But if that same person starts accessing engineering documents and sending large files, the system intervenes.
In the next five years, technologies will be scaled down to the consumer level. So instead of comparing me to everyone else, potentially suspicious behavior will be compared with my own electronic persona. It will, for instance, recognize that I just got off a plane and expect me to make purchases in that city, but not another.
5. Smarter Cities
In the 1960’s Jane Jacobs argued that cities were not just places in which people live, but important platforms for innovation. When lots of people with diverse interests and skills collide together in one place, new ideas get created. Vibrant cities are essential to a vibrant society.
Yet putting so many people so close together also creates tensions. Traffic jams, blight and crime can make cities difficult to live in and maintaining infrastructure is a constant battle. By 2050, 70% of the world’s population will live in cities, greatly magnifying both the opportunities and the risks.
IBM’s Smarter Cities program combines sensors in the Web of Things with predictive analytics, so that cities will see problems before they arise. So instead of just informing us when traffic jams occur, a traffic report of the future will tell us where they are likely to happen and suggest a different route.
In the next five years, IBM sees similar solutions for a variety of city services. For example, it partnered with the city of Dubuque, Iowa on a pilot project to install smart water meters. Not only were they able to reduce consumption and detect leaks more efficiently, citizens themselves could tap into the system to help manage their own usage.
When Prediction Is Actually Something More
What’s interesting about IBM’s “5 for 5” list is that the company is not making idle predictions, but issuing a rallying call to the thousands of researchers it employs worldwide. The company has earned five Nobel prizes in the past and is always looking for the next big breakthrough.
As Bernard Meyerson, Vice President of Innovation at IBM says, “Each prediction is a grand challenge. We have a really competitive bunch, and this is very hard stuff. However, all of it is feasible if you work your butt off and get it right. And that really motivates the entire IBM team. It focuses our work and allows us to achieve big things.”
“Great technology can make an enormous difference. What we’re really aiming for isn’t to predict the future, but to change the future. We want to improve and save lives.”
image credit: ibmresearchblog.com
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Greg Satell is an internationally recognized authority on Digital Strategy and Innovation. He consults and speaks in the areas of digital innovation, innovation management, digital marketing and publishing, as well as offshore web and app development. His blog is Digital Tonto and you can follow him on Twitter.