This week, IBM released its annual “5 by 5” report. This is a look at the top five ways that computing will change over the next five years. This year, the company chose to examine the ways in which we'll expand the ability of computers to process different kinds of data – specifically, the kind of data that humans receive through their five senses.
You can check out the report itself. If you read the introductory paragraph covering each sense, it's an easy skim; you can also choose to delve a bit deeper with the connected videos and the links that lead to more information on each section. I highly recommend delving deeper; there's some really good food for thought there, as well as technical explanations that detail where we are, where IBM thinks we'll be in five years, and how we'll get there.
My first reaction upon seeing this, of course, was to wonder if having five senses like humans would make computers more human. It turns out, though, that it's a lot more complicated than that – and we can find plenty of uses for computers that can sense like humans without having them BECOME more human.
Take the sense of touch, for instance. “Infrared and haptic technologies will enable a smart phone's touchscreen technology and vibration capabilities to simulate the physical sensation of touching something,” the report suggested. “So you could experience the silkiness of that catalog's Egyptian cotton sheets instead of just relying on some copywriter to convince you.”
This would be an important step forward from the kind of feedback you get from advanced gaming controllers. But how will it work? “By matching variable-frequency patterns of vibration to physical objects so, that when a shopper touches what the webpage says is a silk shirt, the screen will emit vibrations that match our skin mentally translates to the feel of silk,” IBM explains. Such technology could even be used to allow a farmer to judge the health of his crop by comparing the feel of his plants with the way healthy plants of the same type feel through his tablet – or possibly even allow doctors to feel a patient's injury remotely to make a faster diagnosis.
Sight is perhaps our most important sense, and computers have already come a long way in their ability to distinguish visual cues. The problem, though, is that for a computer, every picture is just thousands of pixels. They don't have the ability to parse colors, edge information, texture characters, and many other details that humans can pick out from our experience of the world. Currently, computers rely on tags and text descriptions to figure out the nature of an image. Sadly, “traditional programming can't replicate something as complex as sight,” IBM notes. But a computer can be taught to understand by repetition: show it thousands of examples of something, and it will start to detect patterns that matter. “In essence, the machine will learn the way we do,” IBM explained.
This approach is called cognitive visual computing, and it could prove invaluable in the medical field. IBM believes it could help doctors to more quickly spot tumors, blood clots, or other problems that show up on MRI, X-ray, and CT scans.
More mundanely, cognitive visual computing could go through the kinds of images we like and share on Facebook and Pinterest to figure out our interests. Retailers could use that information to better target their promotions or even offer highly individualized products and services. How about some limited-edition content for your favorite fighting game – where you're taking on opponents around the landmarks you visited during your last vacation? Tell me that wouldn't be cool!
I don't have the room to cover all of the remaining senses, but I'd like to touch on IBM's predictions for computers that can taste. The company believes we'll eventually see a computer that can create “perfect” meals “using an algorithmic recipe of favorite flavors and optimal nutrition. No more need for substitute foods when you can have a personalized menu that satisfies both the calorie count and the palate,” IBM trumpets.
To understand how this would work, it's important to remember that flavors are basically chemical and neural in nature. IBM expects that computers will use the molecular structure of food to build these ideal meals. Indeed, the company is working on a system that “analyzes food in terms of how chemical compounds interact with each other, the number of atoms in each compound, and the bonding structure and shapes of compounds. Coupled with psychophysical data and models on which chemicals produce perceptions of pleasantness, familiarity and enjoyment, the end result is a unique recipe, using combinations of ingredients that are scientifically flavorful.”
Mixing me up a dish of healthy vegetables that tastes like chocolate? Yes please – though we're not likely to get that far in five years. The company is thinking more in terms of coming up with healthy, unusual food combinations that also boast pleasing flavors, rather than something healthy that tastes just like something unhealthy but delicious. Still, even that much could help deal with obesity issues; imagine a healthy breakfast dish that tastes as rich and satisfying as eggs benedict but delivers the impact of the Hollandaise sauce without all the calories and other unhealthy components. Or how about a pizza made with a dough that tastes normal – but has been engineered with far fewer carbohydrates, making it much safer for diabetics to eat? Now that would be a tasty future indeed.
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