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Hits and misses in five-tech forecast


"Help me, IBM-Kenobi!" This illustration shows how holographic displays might someday be incorporated into a mobile device. Such a concept is nowhere near reality yet, but IBM's forecasters say it could be in five years.

In the year 2015, will we be using holographic 3-D cell phones powered by air-breathing batteries in energy-saving offices to protect the planet and anticipate traffic jams? IBM's forecasters think we will — but a look back at their past technology predictions shows why some forecasts are sure bets and others fall flat.

The company's "Next Five in Five" list is an effort to anticipate technological innovations that are just over the horizon today but will make a significant impact on everyday life five years hence. "These are technologies we are working on, in some cases," Kerrie Holley, an IBM fellow and chief technology officer for global business services, told me. In other cases, IBM's researchers are just trying to figure out "where the hockey puck is going" when it comes to broad tech trends, he said.

Such forecasts blend common-sense projections of current trends with wild ideas that sound so crazy they just might work. You can see how this works in this year's "Five in Five" list:

Beam up your friends in 3-D: Future devices will display 3-D imagery as holograms, which will open the way for real-time interaction at a distance, the way Jedi knights interacted with each other in "Star Wars." Princess Leia could make her famous holographic plea for help using a cell phone rather than R2-D2. This sounds like a crazy idea, but just last month, University of Arizona researchers demonstrated just such a prototype holo-display. Holley said IBM was less interested in holograms and more interested in 3-D data visualization — for example, using medical data to create a computerized avatar that can be twisted and turned for inspection in a doctor's office. "It's 3-D imagery, but it could be displayed on something you could look at only two-dimensionally," he said.

Air-breathing batteries, or no battery at all: Next-generation electronic devices are being designed to do more with less power, and next-generation batteries are being developed to store more power with less weight. Lithium metal-air batteries and zinc-air batteries, for example, use oxygen from the air in their electrodes. Some devices may not even need batteries in the traditional sense, but instead would generate power when they're shaken. Some wristwatches use this trick today: They require no winding, but get charged up by "scavenging" the energy from your arm movements. "This isn't going to power the big devices, but it could conceivably power mobile phones in the future," Holley said. Is there a "shake-and-dial" phone in your future?

Everyone's an observer: Sensors and cameras in your car, your phone and your wallet can be used to produce a real-time, wide-angle picture of the environment. "Snap a photo, maybe the app prompts you for a few quick questions, and then you can send it off," Holley said. All those readings could be aggregated by computers to track seismic events, monitor the rise and fall of rivers, pass along tsunami alerts or even conduct scientific studies. "You'll be able to contribute this data to fight global warming, save endangered species or track invasive plants or animals that threaten ecosystems around the world," IBM says. "In the next five years, a whole class of 'citizen scientists' will emerge, using simple sensors that already exist to create massive data sets for research."

Your commute will be personalized: Mathematical models will draw upon real-time data to figure out not only where highway traffic is gnarly right now, but also what the situation will be when you're on the road. As we discussed six months ago, IBM researchers are already quantifying which factors are the most painful for commuters, and using those findings to develop traffic flow prediction systems. Such a system has already been put to the test in Singapore — so I'd say this is one of those sure-fire forecasts.

Computers will help power your city: Computer data centers are sometimes seen as energy hogs that give off lots of heat, requiring heavy-duty air conditioning systems to cool off all that circuitry. But what if that waste heat could be used to keep buildings warm in the winter and cool in the summer? This year, IBM delivered a water-cooled supercomputer to the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich that consumes up to 40 percent less energy than a comparable air-cooled machine. This is probably the geekiest prediction of the bunch, but IBM says the cooling system reduces the computer's carbon footprint by 85 percent.

How much of this is blue-sky thinking, and how much of this is just common sense? Four years ago, I passed along a couple of five-year, five-tech forecasts, and it's instructive to see how those shaped up. First, here's IBM's "Five in Five" list from late 2006:

3-D Internet: The Internet will become a seamless virtual world that you explore through 3-D computer graphics, like one great big Second Life with open borders. Second Life and other virtual worlds haven't been as successful as some forecasters may have thought, and as a result, this prediction has fallen flat. Who knows? Maybe the same thing will happen to this year's dream of a holographic world. 

Mind-reading cell phones: Mobile devices will be aware of your surroundings and let you know what's on special at the nearest pizza place. You'll be able to take a picture of a landmark and have the mobile network tell you everything it knows about what you're seeing. Four years later, this prediction looks like a sure thing, thanks to GPS-aware smart phones and augmented-reality apps.

Nanotech for energy and the environment: Advances in nanomaterials will lead to new types of water-filtering and desalination systems as well as lower-cost solar power systems. Because engineers were already looking into these technologies four years ago, this was a pretty solid prediction. Just this summer, Stanford researchers announced the development of a water-purifying filter that works 80,000 times faster than existing filters, thanks in part to nanotubes and silver nanowires. And several companies are working on printable thin-film solar panels that will be far less expensive to produce than the solar cells that were available in 2006.

Telemedicine: Patients' vital signs will be beamed directly to your doctor's office, and care providers in remote areas will transmit medical images and data to specialists thousands of miles away for instant review. RFID technology and telemonitoring systems have made this sort of thing possible, although I don't think the practice is quite as inexpensive and widespread as IBM expected it to be. In the future, portable medical scanners could make a big difference in the developing world.

Real-time speech translation: Translators will be popping up in mobile phones, handheld devices and automobiles. Nowadays, text-to-speech translation is no big deal, thanks to apps such as iSpeak. Last year, Google demonstrated near-real-time speech-to-speech translation and said the app would be available in 2010. With 2010 coming to a close, there are indeed some speech translation apps out there, but the challenge hasn't yet been fully met.

In early 2007, I took a turn at the five-tech, five-year prediction game. Here's a review of my picks almost four years later:

Energy independence through ethanol: "We'll become less dependent on foreign fossil fuel, thanks to advances in cellulosic ethanol production and other energy technologies." Unfortunately, energy independence still seems as far off as the 3-D Internet. Much of the luster that surrounded the ethanol dream in 2007 has disappeared, due to a food-vs.-fuel controversy as well as questions about the efficiency of the current production process. Researchers are still looking for workable ways to turn wood waste and other cellulosic sources into biofuels. But nowadays the big buzz is about electric cars rather than biofuel power.

Sociable, drivable robots: "Robots will become more humanlike, while others will be smart enough to drive themselves through city traffic." Autonomous vehicles have proven that they can take on city streets, and this year Google made a splash by road-testing driverless cars (with a human behind the wheel for backup). Robonaut 2, which is scheduled to fly up to the International Space Station, is one example of a robot that's built to fit in with human crewmates. The biggest frontier for humanoid androids is in Japan, where machines have gone to the head of the class, strutted their stuff on the fashion catwalk and officiated at weddings. But sex with a robot? Eeeww!

Cyborgs and cyberhumans: "Researchers will develop better prosthetic devices and perhaps even fiber-optic nervous systems, knitting humans and their machines more closely together." Prosthetics have indeed become much better in the past four years, but you didn't need to be a techno-prophet to see that. Among the examples: more lifelike artificial body parts, artificial skin with a sense of touch, nano-sized circuitry that could be used in brain-computer interfaces, and yes, fiber-optic nerves. But there's still a long way to go, and I might have to keep this one in the next five-tech forecast.

Personalized medicine: "Your genetic profile will help guide medical treatment." It's taking much longer than the experts thought for genetic medicine to hit the big time, in part because the genetic roots of disease are far more complex than expected. But headway is being made. Just this month, German researchers said they figured out the genetic reasons why some patients respond better to the anti-clotting medication Plavix.

Commercial spaceflight: "By 2010, there might well be two or three companies offering quick rides to outer space and back, with a price tag of $200,000 or so." Virgin Galactic and other companies are indeed willing to take your money for future suborbital space trips, but in the six years since SpaceShipOne flew, no other private-sector spaceships have yet brought humans to the final frontier. That may change in 2011 or 2012 — so I still have a shot at partial redemption. 

How close do you think these predictions came? And what do you think the next five years will bring? Feel free to critique all these forecasts or offer your own "Five in Five" prognostications in the comment section below. 

For another perspective on the "Next Five in Five," check out this report from The Motley Fool. Connect with Cosmic Log by "liking" our Facebook page or hooking up on Twitter, and check out "The Case for Pluto," science editor Alan Boyle's book about Pluto and the planet quest.