Who would have guessed, five years ago, that by 2011 we would have mobile phones that would, in a rudimentary way, listen to our questions and give us useful answers? Or ways for doctors to get help to people in the most remote corners of the world?
Crystal-ball forecasts, fanciful or otherwise, are a staple of year-end conversations, but IBM, the computer-services giant, has a research arm that makes them as a matter of course. Every December, it puts out a " 5 in 5" list -- five predictions for the next five years. The company says it is a way to solve major societal problems, identify business opportunities, and, while they're at it, get people talking.
"It's a very good test of our ability to see forward in a holistic way," said Bernard Meyerson, IBM's vice president of innovation, who talked about how engineers, economists, marketers and others may all be involved in a multi-billion-dollar project. "You cannot survive long-term if you just concentrate on just one part of a problem. You'll get run over."
How good have their past predictions been? IBM says two of its five predictions from five years ago -- telemedicine and nanotechnology for environmental needs -- panned out, others less so (you still drive your car the same way, for instance).
"Not everything will work," said Meyerson, "but you'll be astounded how well you do if you work at it."
Keeping score, though, is a little beside the point; setting goals for the future is more like it. So here is IBM's list of "the next 5 in 5."
Energy: People Power
Imagine generating electricity from routine motions around you -- using the tides to run power plants, or charging your cellphone battery by plugging it into a tiny generator attached to a wheel of your bicycle. It's kinetic energy. Remember that from third-grade science?
These are not that hard to do. We're not doing them. They could relieve the load on our overburdened power grid, reduce pollution and make power blackouts less of a worry.
Security: The End of Passwords
You need one password for your cellphone, another for your checking account, a different one for your email at work and at home -- and another for your list of passwords. Enough! A good hacker can go around them anyhow.
This is not really about passwords, says IBM, it's about personal security. Meyerson talks about "multifactor biometrics" as your way to prove to your digital tools that you're really you.
They're thinking of retinal scans, voice print identification, fingerprints and the like, used in combination. Much better than your dog's name followed by a number.
Meyerson says this could be liberating. You could be much more comfortable about storing vital information in a handheld or a tablet. The device becomes more useful to you -- and completely worthless to a would-be thief.
Reading Your Mind
We live in a primitive world. If you want a machine to do something, you press buttons or turn knobs. In a few limited cases ("What's your account number?" says the automated voice on the phone), it may understand your voice.
Every time you think about pushing one of those buttons, though, you think about it -- and perhaps the minute electrical impulses in your brain can be read.
Primitive versions have already been used to help people with disabilities. The technology could be made cheaper and more common. Want to talk to your brother? Think about it and your phone will call him.
Ending the Digital Divide
Already, far more people get online through their cellphones than through plugged-in computers. Wireless access in countries like South Korea is considerably faster and more useful, says Paul Bloom of IBM, than it is in the U.S.
This could be expanded and be powerful. In a poor country, it is far easier and cheaper to set up wireless networks than it is to lay cables the old-fashioned way.
No More Junk Mail
Sure, the Postal Service is in trouble. People make online payments and send email instead of using the mail. Your mailbox instead overflows with flyers for things you could care less about. Your email is crowded with spam.
"But what if your handset learns your preferences?" asked Meyerson. "It'll take care of the junk mail you don't want." If it figures out you're a Greenday fan, for instance, it may already be letting you know when there are deals on tickets.
You may find this unsettling -- the machines have you figured out -- but Meyerson said you may like it. Advertisers will stop bothering you if they know they're wasting their time.
"It inverts the entire relationship between the target and the marketer," he said.