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December 29, 2010

IBM Lists Five Life-Changing Innovations in Five Years

Technology giant IBM Corp., has formally unveiled the fifth annual "Next Five in Five,” a list of innovations that have the potential to change the way people work, live and play over the next five years. It is based on market and societal trends, as well as emerging technologies from IBM's (News - Alert) Labs around the world that can make these innovations possible. 

In the next five years, according to IBM, five technology innovations will change people's lives in the following ways:

  • You'll beam up your friends in 3D;
  • Batteries will breathe air to power our devices;
  • You won't need to be a scientist to save the planet;
  • Your commute will be personalized;
  • Computers will help energize your city.

The next five years will see rapid adoption of 3D technologies. For instance, 3D interfaces, like those in the movies, will let you interact with 3D holograms of your friends in real time. Movies and TVs are already moving to 3D, and as 3D and holographic cameras get more sophisticated and miniaturized to fit into cell phones, the user will be able to interact with photos, browse the Web and chat with friends in entirely new ways, predicts IBM.

In fact, IBM scientists are working to improve video chat to become holography chat or 3D telepresence. The technique uses light beams scattered from objects and reconstructs a picture of that object, similar to what human eyes use to visualize our surroundings.

Likewise, batteries will breathe air to power our devices. Scientific advances in transistors and battery technology will allow devices to last about 10 times longer than they do today. Also, in some smaller devices, batteries may disappear altogether.

Instead of the heavy lithium-ion batteries used today, scientists are working on batteries that use the air we breathe to react with energy-dense metal, eliminating a key inhibitor to longer lasting batteries. If successful, the result will be a lightweight, powerful and rechargeable battery capable of powering everything from electric cars to consumer devices.

But what if we could eliminate batteries altogether? By rethinking the basic building block of electronic devices, the transistor, IBM is aiming to reduce the amount of energy per transistor to less than 0.5 volts. With energy demands this low, IBM scientists might be able to lose the battery altogether in some devices like mobile phones or e-readers.

The result would be battery-free electronic devices that can be charged using a technique called energy scavenging. Some wrist watches use this today – they require no winding and charge based on the movement of your arm. The same concept could be used to charge mobile phones, for example – just shake and dial.

Third, you don’t have to be a scientist to save the planet. While you may not be a physicist, you are a walking sensor. In five years, sensors in your phone, your car, your wallet and even your tweets will collect data that will give scientists a real-time picture of your environment. You'll be able to contribute this data to fight global warming, save endangered species or track invasive plants or animals that threaten cosystems around the world. 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, says IBM.

Fourth, making your commute fast and personalized. Today, it is difficult to imagine commuting with no jam-packed highways, no crowded subways, no construction delays and not having to worry about being late for work. However, with advances in analytics technologies in next five years, all this will change. It will provide personalized recommendations that will help commuters get where they need to go in the fastest time. Adaptive traffic systems will intuitively learn traveler patterns and behavior to provide more dynamic travel safety and route information to travelers than is available today.

IBM researchers are developing new models that will predict the outcomes of varying transportation routes to provide information that goes well beyond traditional traffic reports, after-the fact devices that only indicate where you are already located in a traffic jam, and web-based applications that give estimated travel time in traffic.

Using new mathematical models and IBM's predictive analytics technologies, the researchers will analyze and combine multiple possible scenarios that can affect commuters to deliver the best routes for daily travel.

Lastly, computers will help energize your city. Innovations in computers and data centers are enabling the excessive heat and energy that they give off to do things like heat buildings in the winter and power air conditioning in the summer. Can you imagine if the energy poured into the world's data centers could in turn be recycled for a city's use?

Up to 50 percent of the energy consumed by a modern data center goes toward air cooling. Most of the heat is then wasted because it is just dumped into the atmosphere. With new technologies, such as novel on-chip water-cooling systems developed by IBM, the thermal energy from a cluster of computer processors can be efficiently recycled to provide hot water for an office or houses.

A pilot project in Switzerland involving a computer system fitted with the technology is expected to save up to 30 tons of carbon dioxide emissions per year, the equivalent of an 85 percent carbon footprint reduction. A novel network of microfluidic capillaries inside a heat sink is attached to the surface of each chip in the computer cluster, which allows water to be piped to within microns of the semiconductor material itself. By having water flow so close to each chip, heat can be removed more efficiently. Water heated to 60 degrees C is then passed through a heat exchanger to provide heat that is delivered elsewhere.


Ashok Bindra is a veteran writer and editor with more than 25 years of editorial experience covering RF/wireless technologies, semiconductors and power electronics. To read more of his articles, please visit his columnist page.

Edited by Tammy Wolf
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