5 Technologies Transforming the 21st Century
Kyle Maxey posted on January 10, 2017 | |
(Image courtesy of IBM.)

(Image courtesy of IBM.)

If there’s one thing the twenty-first century has delivered, it’s explosive technological growth. Since the beginning of the Aughts, technologies like mobile computing, artificial intelligence, improved sensors, self-driving cars and even bio-technologies like CRISPR have brought the shimmering vision of a borderline techno-utopia into sharper focus.

Though this century is only 16 years old, the promise it holds for the betterment of the human condition is boundless (provided we don’t destroy the planet in the next twenty years), and large tech firms like IBM are scrambling to figure out exactly how to maximize this century’s potential.

In an effort to inform public opinion—or possibly prime the pump for upcoming innovation—IBM has released its list of the 5 technologies that will most impact the globe over the next 5 years. 

What is IBM looking forward to as the 2010s fade into the 2020s? Let’s take a look.

 

1. AIs Will Detect Mental Disorders by Combing Speech and Writing

Some of the most insidious conditions affecting humanity are the hidden away in our genes or psychology.

Sometimes those suffering from brain disorders, psychological illness or chronic disease are aware of these problems, however, in some cases those affected have no idea that a condition is developing.

IBM predicts that in the next five years, the power of massive artificial intelligence systems will be able to audit the speech and writing patterns of individuals and make assessments about the state of their health.

According to IBM: “Cognitive computers will analyze a patient’s speech or written words to look for tell-tale indicators found in language, including meaning, syntax and intonation. Combining the results of these measurements with those from wearables devices and imaging systems (MRIs and EEGs) can paint a more complete picture of the individual for health professionals to better identify, understand and treat the underlying disease, be it Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, Huntington’s disease, PTSD or even neurodevelopmental conditions such as autism and ADHD.”

Whether potential AI-docs will be combing Facebook feeds, YouTube posts and other social media forums to create a baseline for diagnosis is still up for debate. I imagine that before this technology becomes widespread there’s going to be a rigorous ethical review of how an AI-doc collects information and parcels out diagnoses.


2. AR Will Improve Our Vision Beyond the Visual Spectrum

Augmented reality (AR) has been a hot topic among technology firms for the past few years. Devices like Google Glass and Microsoft’s Hololens headset are the harbingers of what’s to come. However, the experience of augmented reality has tended to exist within the realm of the visual spectrum. IBM’s futurists believe that in the coming years, augmented reality systems will not only accommodate data derived from what we can see, but it will also pull in information from the electromagnetic spectrum and other sources, lending humans superhero-like vision. 

According to IBM: “In five years, new imaging devices using hyperimaging technology and AI will help us see broadly beyond the domain of visible light by combining multiple bands of the electromagnetic spectrum to reveal valuable insights or potential dangers that would otherwise be unknown or hidden from view. Most importantly, these devices will be portable, affordable, and accessible, so superhero vision can be part of our everyday experiences.”

Imagine this type of technology being employed in cars, where fog, snow and torrential downpours can disrupt traffic and lead to fatal accidents. With a fully developed suite of electromagnetic sensors connected to an embedded HUD, drivers (if there are still any on the road) could be completely aware of their surrounding even if their visual sense is impaired by the weather.

 

3. Big Data Transforms into a “Macroscope” for Investigating the World

Today, the Internet of Things (IoT) is getting a lot of press because it previews a world that’s intimately connected. Though the IoT is still a fledgling technology, it offers the chance of interconnecting a vast amount of data that can be mined to harvest indicators of social trends, disease development and economic inclinations. While the technology is currently being used to serve consumer demands, product development cycles and industrial stocking schemes, the technology’s future looks to be very bright.

Or at least that’s the opinion of IBM’s brain trust:

“In five years, we will use machine-learning algorithms and software to help us organize the information about the physical world to help bring the vast and complex data gathered by billions of devices within the range of our vision and understanding. We call this a ‘macroscope’ — but unlike the microscope to see the very small, or the telescope that can see far away, it is a system of software and algorithms to bring all of Earth’s complex data together to analyze it for meaning.”

Building a digital twin of the physical world is an enormous task. Analyzing the data that underpins that model will be even more difficult. However, if a system similar to the one IBM envisions ever comes into being, whole new methods of predictive analytics will be available to scientists and researchers around the globe.

 

4. Lab on a Chip Makes Disease Diagnosis Faster, More Accurate and Earlier

Not all diseases display symptoms immediately. Parkinson’s disease, for example, can hide within the human body for years before any symptoms appear. What’s more, even when symptoms do appear, it’s often difficult to diagnose, requiring many trips to neurologists to reach a clear-cut verdict. Moreover, even if the disease is diagnosed, it’s often so far progressed that treatment is limited.

IBM predicts that labs-on-a-chip—medical diagnostic tools the size of a USB—will change the timeline for disease diagnosis, potentially improving treatment outcomes.

“Lab-on-a-chip technology could ultimately be packaged in a convenient handheld device to allow people to quickly and regularly measure the presence of biomarkers found in small amounts of bodily fluids, sending this information securely streaming into the cloud from the convenience of their home. There it could be combined with real-time health data from other IoT-enabled devices, like sleep monitors and smart watches, and analyzed by AI systems for insights. When taken together, this data set will give us an in depth view of our health and alert us to the first signs of trouble, helping to stop disease before it progresses.”

 

5. Smart Sensors Help Curb Environmental Pollution

Climate change is one of the greatest existential threats facing humanity, impacting our planet, global economies, migration and a litany of other issues. To curb these effects, nations will need to take direct action to limit carbon-based pollution and the first step in doing that is monitoring the facilities that generate our carbon-based energy.

“Most pollutants are invisible to the human eye, until their effects make them impossible to ignore. Methane, for example, is the primary component of natural gas, commonly considered a clean energy source. But if methane leaks into the air before being used, it can warm the Earth’s atmosphere. Methane is estimated to be the second largest contributor to global warming after carbon dioxide (CO2). Networks of IoT sensors wirelessly connected to the cloud will provide continuous monitoring of the vast natural gas infrastructure, allowing leaks to be found in a matter of minutes instead of weeks, reducing pollution and waste and the likelihood of catastrophic events.”

Although monitoring wellheads and other carbon-based fuel facilities is a first step towards combating the potentially devastating effects of climate change, more will need to be done to ensure that our planet isn’t completely corrupted by our ravenous need for cheap, carbon-based energy.

The United States, China, India and Russia will need to take the lead in developing real strategies for stemming humanity’s growing appetite for carbon-based fuels. Even more, nations that are already implementing renewable solutions like Germany, The Netherlands, Sweden, Norway, Iceland, etc. will need to lead the way in showing that a carbon-free or carbon-weening world can exist even as our demands for energy continue to grow.


What do you think of IBM’s predictions? Are they big enough and bold enough to stand as the five most impactful technological trends of the next five years? Are there other technologies that should have been included on the list? If so, what are they? Leave a comment below. 

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