IBM labs promises five innovations

New technologies from an industry stalwart

The ability to "talk" to the Web, information collection and retrieval systems that alleviate forgetfulness, and solar technology built into asphalt, windows and even paint are among the advances IBM sees emerging from its research labs in the next five years.

IBM compiled the following list, which is becoming an annual tradition, by consulting with leading innovators at the company, said Sharon Nunes, the company's vice-president for Big Green Innovations.

• Energy-saving solar technology will be embedded in asphalt for sidewalks and driveways, as well as in siding, paint, rooftops and windows. Thin-film solar cells that can be made 100 times thinner than silicon-wafer cells will find their way into construction projects, infrastructure projects and also into consumer electronics and vehicles. IBM is in discussions with partners to have them develop tools to process the cells, which can be "printed" and placed on a flexible backing, as opposed to solar panels that are much larger and less cost-efficient.

• Genetic "maps" based on an individual's DNA will become a routine part of health care, notably for screening and preventative treatment because the price will drop to under US$200. Cheaper computational power means that information processing for genetic mapping can be done inexpensively, Nunes said. IBM's role is to provide the software analytics.

Using herself as an example, Nunes said that her family has what seems to be a genetic predisposition to high cholesterol and blood pressure levels, so a map of her DNA would tell her if she inherited those traits. If it turns out she did, her doctor could place her on a preventative program including diet and exercise and she would know not to "have that second creme brulee" for dessert. Or, conversely, that she can indulge without as much worry.

• IBM anticipates that the Web "will change dramatically in the next five years," with widespread use of voice commands to navigate the Internet. Visuals and keypads will not be necessary to use the Web.

The "spoken Web" project comes from more than 30 years of IBM research in speech recognition. While voice recognition has been full of promise for years, Nunes is adamant that it will fulfill its promise soon. "The fact is the technology is there in bits and pieces -- it's really scaling and social acceptance" that are needed for wide use, she said.

IBM envisions a range of applications for the spoken Web, including using a telephone to verbally respond to and send e-mail and instant messages, as well as providing Internet access for illiterate people or those who do not have PCs but so have mobile phones. Less than 20 percent of the world's population has access to the Internet, Nunes said, but mobile phones are far more widespread.

• Personal digital shopping assistants in the retail industry will alert salespeople to shoppers who need help and also allow the use of avatars for seeing what clothing looks good. The digital assistants will be set up in dressing-room kiosks using a touch screen and voice activation that allows shoppers to choose the items they want to try on and summon a salesperson to bring different sizes or colors.

Such technology could also let shoppers take photos of clothing they are interested in and then superimpose the clothes on to a personal avatar. Such avatars are already used at various retail Web sites. Nunes sees a personal application -- she serves as her husband's personal shopper. "He hates trying on pants. I could take his avatar with me," she said. That would save returns on clothing that doesn't fit.

• Conversations, reminders, lists -- what to pick up at the grocery store, for instance -- will be recorded, stored, analyzed and kept for retrieval at a later date using portable as well as stationary devices, including mobile phones that have built-in microphones and video cameras. "Think of it as having your own personal search engine," Nunes said.

For instance, the sort of hallway conversation you might have with a colleague about a work project could be recorded so that details you discussed on the fly can be recalled. Software would permit you to provide the colleague's name or the date of the conversation or general topic to retrieve it, so you wouldn't have to remember much in the way of detail to receive a memory prod.

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