Technology giant IBM is known for of making bold predictions about the future, and it’s just announced its latest “5 in 5” list, highlighting the five innovations that they think will have the biggest impact on our lives over the next five years.
According to the company, in only a few years, we’re set to see huge developments in artificial intelligence (AI), ultra-powerful telescopes, smart sensors, and medical devices – with benefits ranging from healthcare and the environment, to our understanding of Earth and the Universe itself.
Of course, all these predictions are based on technology and research developments that are happening right now – there’s no way of knowing what else might crop up in the next five years.
But take a look at this vision of the near future, and you might want to check back in once 2022 hits, just to see if the scientists got it right.
1. Thanks to AI, our speech will be a window into our mental health
You can tell a lot about someone based on how they talk – whether they’re bored, flustered, distracted, or miserable.
As humans, we’ve evolved to pick up these cues, but rapid advancements being made in computer processing power means speech analysis is about to become a whole lot more insightful.
IBM predicts that in five years, “What we say and write will be used as indicators of our mental health and physical wellbeing.”
For example, mental illness and diseases such as Parkinson’s could be spotted sooner with a mobile phone app, thanks to AI calculations being done in the cloud, and the earlier we spot these conditions, the better placed we are to treat them.
It might sound like a stretch to link speech cues to symptoms of disease, but experimental systems such as this are already appearing.
Last year, a team from the University of Southern California built a program that was able to detect variations from normal speech patterns and identify signs of depression.
2. Superhero vision will be possible with AI and powerful new devices
Our eyes are fantastic pieces of biological equipment, but according to IBM, powerful, tiny cameras combined with the fast processing smarts of AI mean we’ll be able to see more than ever before by 2022.
As well as visible light, we could see microwave, millimetre wave, and infrared images through devices small enough to fit in your pocket or clip onto your shades – think the visual capabilities of something like an airport security scanner, but in a device the size of your phone.
Using this kind of technology, you could instantly see whether food is safe to eat, and it could give self-driving cars the capacity to see through fog or rain much more easily.
The first of these devices are already appearing, like the EnChroma sunglasses that help color blind people see color for the first time.
Right now, they’re expensive and experimental, but by 2022, they could be commonplace.
3. ‘Macroscopes’ will help us understand Earth’s complexity in infinite detail
Thanks to satellite imagery, being able to see a bird’s eye view of anywhere on Earth feels normal – but Google Earth is just the beginning.
IBM predicts that “macroscope” systems – like microscopes, but at the other end of the scale – are going to combine “all of Earth’s complex data together”, so we can analyze it from all kinds of new perspectives.
Not only will this technology provide us with more data from satellites, smart sensors, and weather stations, it will offer much better ways to organize and sort through it all.
This technology wouldn’t just apply to natural processes on Earth and beyond – all kinds of devices, including our lights and fridges, could be studied using macroscopes of the future to predict everything from climate change trends to the best ways of distributing food to various communities around the globe.
From remote-controlled light bulbs to ‘smart’ speakers that can record your shopping lists and look up Wikipedia for you, many more devices in homes and across cities are getting smarter and more connected, so imagine the potential of being able to sift through all that data in a more intelligent way.
4. ‘Labs on a chip’ will revolutionize medicine
As computing technology shrinks and gets more and more powerful, the medical benefits could be huge, IBM predicts. Imagine accurate diagnoses in your home, at a low cost, to catch diseases earlier than ever.
“New medical labs on a chip will serve as nanotechnology health detectives – tracing invisible clues in our bodily fluids and letting us know immediately if we have reason to see a doctor,” explains IBM.
In other words, a full biochemistry lab in the palm of your hand.
Detecting diseases such as cancer or Parkinson’s in their early stages can make a big difference to how successful treatments are, which is why scientists are working to improve analysis of our tears, blood, urine, and sweat.
By 2022, your sleep tracker and fitness band could be feeding back data to an AI system in the cloud, and with that information, you could access detailed advice about how to improve your health, while also remotely alerting your doctor to any warning signs of impending disease.
5. Smart sensors will detect environmental pollution faster than ever
IBM predicts that the mix of smart hardware and AI analysis featured in its other predictions could also be used to detect environmental pollution almost instantly.
Just as a smart tracker could spot early signs of disease in the human body, smart sensors embedded in the ground or fitted to drones could detect pollutants and emissions in real-time, without having to transfer samples back to a lab.
Smart sensors located along pipelines, around storage facilities, and near natural wells will be able to raise the alarm about leaks quicker than ever before.
Such leaks could be “found in a matter of minutes instead of weeks”, explains IBM, “reducing pollution and waste and the likelihood of catastrophic events”.
As we mentioned above, predicting the future is notoriously tricky, but these kinds of technologies are already well into development by research teams all over the world, so it’s really just a question of when we get there.
Let’s hope things are even more awesome in 2022, thanks to whatever amazing tech scientists can come up with.
Because the Universe is set to give us a bright new ‘star’ in the night sky by then, so let’s see if we can top that.