Big companies love to make big predictions for the future. It makes them look innovative and forward-thinking. But when a company as influential as IBM starts talking about what the planet will look like in five years, you listen up. After all, they’re the ones who made Watson.
Each year, IBM Research publishes its 5 in 5 list—a sweeping array of inchoate technologies that it believes will revolutionize fundamental aspects of society. Not surprisingly, this year’s list is focused mostly on “smart” technology. Coupled with ever-expanding cloud services, smart systems will greatly enhance the various educational, commercial, and domestic routines of the modern world—with a significant focus on the individual.
But, as is often the case with these bold, cross-disciplinary forecasts, there are a few head-scratchers—a few crystal ball predictions that seem more an exercise in marketable chest-thumping than realistic prognostication.
Still, it makes for an interesting read. I mean, who doesn’t like to think about the future?
Education Will be Tailored to the Individual
According to IBM, cloud services, digitized institutions, and electronic textbooks will not only provide unprecedented access to education, but will also enable teaching strategies that are tailored to individual needs. Cloud-based analytics will learn and respond to the habits of each student, and carry that data through their educational development.
For example, a student with a strongly visual learning style might struggle with math. That kid could be given a curriculum that's more graphical than the one given to his more number-oriented classmates. The same data may also eventually direct this student toward specific career opportunities based on his or her skills.
While that's pretty much what a good teacher does today, it helps to think of this system as an aid for the classroom environment, rather than a replacement.
Local Retail Will Make a Comeback
IBM predicts the reemergence of local retail in a big way, going so far as to refer to online-only retailers as “quaint” in comparison to the connected, personalized shopping experience of the future.
Brick-and-mortar shops, large and small, will utilize augmented reality, location-based computing, and wearable tech to tap into the personal interests and needs of consumers. This will, in essence, trump the benefits of online shopping.
But you have to imagine that if local retailers are so empowered by targeted advertising and personalized sales, surely that same potential will extend to the e-commerce space—perhaps even more so. And with the prospect of same-day delivery, it’s hard to imagine local stores offering any advantage beyond the mere thrill of shopping as a physical activity.
It’s true that local stores benefit from the fact that certain products—like cars, bicycles, and clothing—need to be tried on before making a commitment, but that space is getting smaller and smaller, even as it gets smarter.
DNA Sequencing Will Individualize Healthcare
DNA sequencing will be used to develop specific treatment plans for cancer patients, stroke victims, and other ill-stricken individuals. According to IBM, it could be done “faster, more affordably, and much more frequently”—which sounds alarmingly like the opening sequence to the Six Million Dollar Man.
While most treatment plans are based on collective or statistical analyses, a complete map of one’s DNA—which will be done in just one day—will allow doctors to develop plans tightly suited to individual health.
I know better than to jump in the ring with geneticists and computational biologists, but it’s hard not to be skeptical of such dogmatic optimism. By the tone of the video, you’d think that within five years we’ll be a mesh of immortal cloud beings floating through an ether of everlasting peace.
Cities Will Work For Us
A bunch of nebulous buzzwords (“cloud-based social feedback, crowd-sourcing, and predictive analytics”), will make cities smarter, IBM says. Connected municipal systems will incorporate streetlights, recycling programs, emergency response, utilities, and public transportation, among others.
These systems will intuitively respond to weather, public events, and other variables to streamline municipal activities and connect citizens. Presumably, towns will also have to deal with the fact that these grids and municipal systems will also be more exposed to hackers and other nefarious entities.
Security Will Be Personal
Cloud-based analytics will provide you with your own personal digital bodyguard—a watchful protector of your digital identity who monitors your habits and secures your information. Anthropomorphism aside, this system will preempt identity theft and hasten a security future that is based increasingly on personal characteristics and even biology, rather than passwords and keys.
While hackers have a history of responding to increased security rather than being foiled by it, this is an important area of focus that demands a lot of attention.