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IBM Looks Ahead to a Sensor Revolution and Cognitive Computers

From the NYT:

The year-end prediction lists from technology companies and research firms are — let’s be honest — in good part thinly-disguised marketing pitches. These are the big trends for next year, and — surprise — our products are tailored-made to help you turn those trends into moneymakers.

But I.B.M. has a bit different spin on this year-end ritual. It taps its top researchers worldwide to come up with a list of five technologies likely to advance remarkably over the next five years. The company calls the list, “Five In Five,” with the latest released on Monday. And this year’s nominees are innovations in computing sensors for touch, sight, hearing, taste and smell.

Touch technologies may mean that tomorrow’s smartphones and tablets will be gateways to a tactile world. Haptics feedback techniques, infrared and pressure-sensitive technologies, I.B.M. researchers predict, will enable a user to brush a finger over the screen and feel the simulated touch of a fabric, its texture and weave. The feel of objects can be translated into unique vibration patterns, as if the tactile version of fingerprints or voice patterns. The resulting vibration patterns will simulate a different feel, for example, of fabrics like wool, cotton or silk.

The coming sensor innovations, said Bernard Meyerson, an I.B.M. scientist whose current title is vice president of innovation, are vital ingredients in what is called cognitive computing. The idea is that in the future computers will be increasingly able to sense, adapt and learn, in their way.

That vision, of course, has been around for a long time — a pursuit of artificial intelligence researchers for decades. But there seem to be two reasons that cognitive computing is something I.B.M., and others, are taking seriously these days. The first is that the vision is becoming increasingly possible to achieve, though formidable obstacles remain. I wrote a piece in the Science section last year on I.B.M.’s cognitive computing project.

The other reason is a looming necessity. When I asked Dr. Meyerson why the five-year prediction exercise was a worthwhile use of researchers’ time, he replied that it helped focus thinking. Actually, his initial reply was a techie epigram. “In a nutshell,” he said, “seven nanometers.”

Read the whole article here.

Big Data in Your Blood

Very soon, we will see inside ourselves like never before, with wearable, even internal , sensors that monitor even our most intimate biological processes. It is likely to happen even before we figure out the etiquette and laws around sharing this knowledge.

Already products like the Nike+ FuelBand and the Fitbit wireless monitor track our daily activity, taking note of our steps and calories burned. The idea is to help meet an exercise regimen, perhaps lose some weight. The real-world results are uneven. For sure, though, people are building up big individual databases about themselves over increasingly long periods of time. So are the companies that sell these products, which store that data.

That is barely the start. Later this year, a Boston-based company calledMC10 will offer the first of several “stretchable electronics” products that can be put on things like shirts and shoes, worn as temporary tattoos or installed in the body. These will be capable of measuring not just heart rate, the company says, but brain activity, body temperature and hydration levels. Another company, called Proteus, will begin a pilot program in Britain for a “Digital Health Feedback System” that combines both wearable technologies and microchips the size of a sand grain that ride a pill right through you. Powered by your stomach fluids, it emits a signal picked up by an external sensor, capturing vital data. Another firm, Sano Intelligence, is looking at micro needle sensors on skin patches as a way of deriving continuous information about the bloodstream.

More info here.

The Postman Always Pings Twice

From the New York Times:

THE Postal Service recently announced it had lost $8.5 billion in the last year, despite cutting more than 100,000 jobs. Without new revenue and other changes to get it back on a firm financial footing, it said, it could face insolvency by the end of 2011.

Fortunately, the service has a unique asset that could allow it to make money by collecting valuable data that would contribute to the country’s safety and economic health: its far-reaching network of trucks.

The service’s thousands of delivery vehicles have only one purpose now: to transport mail. But what if they were fitted with sensors to collect and transmit information about weather or air pollutants? The trucks would go from being bulky tools of industrial-age communication to being on the cutting edge of 21st-century information-gathering and forecasting.

More info here.

Smarter Sensors for Tire Monitors

From the NYT:

LIFE is not easy for tires. Beyond the injuries meted out by potholes and the stress imposed by drivers who insist on squealing through curves, there is the indignity of underinflation.

Tires with insufficient air pressure — a typical sign of owner indifference — not only reduce a car’s fuel economy and wear out faster, they are also at risk for blowouts. According to the Transportation Department, more than a quarter of all cars on American roads have at least one tire that is seriously low on air.

Since 2007, the federal government has required some form of tire pressure monitoring as a standard safety feature on new vehicles, and a phase-in of the systems will begin in Europe in a couple of years. The requirement was stipulated by Congress in 2000 as part of the Tread Act (the acronym stands for Transportation Recall Enhancement, Accountability and Documentation) following a swarm of rollover accidents and fatalities involving Firestone tires on Ford Explorers and similar trucks.

More info here.

NYT: A Landlord Learns From His Son

From the New York Times:

In his father’s house are many rooms. Roberto Fata has put sensors in a lot of them: Water sensors that warn when toilets are backing up. Temperature sensors that showed “we were baking the tenants,” he said — the average living-room temperature in one building was 96 degrees in the winter of 2004, when he installed the first ones. Oil-tank sensors that provide the evidence when a delivery is 200 gallons short.

Mr. Fata, 42, remembers the moment when his father said, “This is a good thing.”

Read the complete article here.

Connecting Your Car, Socks and Body to the Internet

From the NYT:

Several years ago, I watched Vint Cerf, who helped draft the architecture of the Internet and is now chief Internet evangelist at Google, give a talk about the future of the Internet.

During his presentation, he discussed the early days of the Internet, when he was developing the protocol called TCP/IP with the United States Department of Defense. He talked about some of the strange early networking experiments his team did, but he also talked about his socks. He explained that one day everything would be connected to the Internet, including his socks, and if one should fall behind the washing machine while he was doing laundry, it would be able to notify the other sock of its whereabouts.

The basis for this concept is called “the Internet of things.”

The day when we have communicative socks might not be too far off, according to a report released Monday by McKinsey & Company. The paper highlights some of the major changes that will result from the growing ubiquity from sensors and objects connected to the Internet, including “sensor-driven decision analytics” and “complex autonomous systems.”

The complete article is available here.

Smart Dust? Not Quite, but We’re Getting There

From the New York Times:

In computing, the vision always precedes the reality by a decade or more. The pattern has held true from the personal computer to the Internet, as it takes time, brainpower and investment to conquer the scientific and economic obstacles to nudging a game-changing technology toward the mainstream.

The same pattern, according to scientists in universities and corporate laboratories, is unfolding in the field of sensor-based computing. Years ago, enthusiasts predicted the coming of “smart dust” — tiny digital sensors, strewn around the globe, gathering all sorts of information and communicating with powerful computer networks to monitor, measure and understand the physical world in new ways. But this intriguing vision seemed plucked from the realm of science fiction.

The complete article is available here.