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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.