Volume 21, Number 1 -- January 9, 2012

As I See It: Punxsutawney Blue

Published: January 9, 2012

by Victor Rozek

If you were the kind of kid who plotted the ignition point of ants frying under a magnifying glass, or dreamed of creating artificial intelligence because your family didn't understand you, then growing up to be an IBM researcher is not unlike winning the lottery. Eccentricity is not a barrier. If you're brilliant enough and have a compelling idea--even an idea that may not find practical application for decades--the vault will open, cash will come pouring out, and you can play with house money for years.

IBM invests billions in R&D, much of which remains closely guarded. But each year it treats us to a peek behind the curtain. From deep within the bowels of IBM's labs, white-coated, pale researchers emerge like Punxsutawney Phil to predict which way the technological winds will blow. But unlike Phil, who predicts no more than six weeks out, they look toward a distant horizon--five years out, to be exact--providing insight into how they are spending IBM's money and what gee-wiz innovations that money will buy.

This year, perhaps the most intriguing prediction has to do with the capture of wasted energy. Anything that moves or generates heat creates energy which, potentially, can be captured and reused. Whether it's the whirl of a windmill or a bicycle wheel, the movement of a jogger or a car, heat from a PC or a light bulb, water rushing through pipes or waves rushing to the shore, we are surrounded by a wealth of untapped energy sources.

IBM researchers believe that, relatively soon, people will be able to collect otherwise wasted kinetic energy and use it to power their homes, mobile devices, and eventually even cities. On a micro level, imagine a universal device a little larger than a thumbdrive that holds a rechargeable battery. Attach one or more to your bicycle spokes, and peddling charges the battery, which can then be used to recharge a cell phone or power a table lamp. Think of it as the link between getting off your butt and getting off the grid.

On a macro level, IBM turned its attention to energy-poor but wave-rich Ireland. The Emerald Isle is in the unenviable position of importing 86 percent of its energy. And with oil production peaking, that strategy has a short half-life. One of the few energy resources available to Ireland lies just offshore in the roiling Atlantic, which boasts one of the highest concentrations of wave energy in the world. The good news is it's renewable, but it's not yet clear if the process of capturing wave energy is environmentally viable. With the entire planet hungry for cheap, renewable energy, it's imperative not to simply trade one environmental disaster for another.

The effects of sub-surface sound and pollution are the main concerns and IBM, in collaboration with Ireland's Marine Institute and the Sustainable Energy Authority, are building systems to track them. They consist of sensing platforms, which contain a communications infrastructure, and advanced stream analytics that utilize cloud computing. The first test site is currently floating in Galway Bay. Wave conditions, acoustics, pollution levels, and their impact on marine life are monitored in and around the bay. Additionally, the development of a full scale, grid-connected test site on the West coast of Ireland is underway.

Acoustical anomalies can have profound effects on fisheries, and these systems will produce one of the largest continuous collections of underwater acoustic data ever captured. The results will be shared with scientific and regulatory agencies, as well as ocean-based industries such as shipping and offshore drilling. As energy is mined from the ocean, these platforms will provide comprehensive monitoring with deep analytics (no pun intended) linked to smart grid technologies. The smarter planet goes aquatic.

Another prediction calls for the demise of the password--and not a moment too soon for the large crop of aging, memory-addled Boomers. Passwords have always presented something of a dilemma. If you use the same password for everything, everything is equally vulnerable. But juggling a half-dozen exotic alpha-numeric combinations requires either having an elephantine memory or writing them down. Of course, once you've written them down you have to remember where you hid the list. IBM wants to take memory out of the equation by making you a living, breathing password.

It's a research discipline called multi-factor biometrics (write it down if you can't remember it), and it promises that future passwords will be comprised of one or more unique biological identifiers. Facial recognition, retina scans, and voice prints will validate your identity, making all other forms of identification obsolete. Maybe next year IBM researchers will discover a use for millions of suddenly useless laminated ID cards.

The third prediction emerges from the nascent science of bioinformatics and promises to create a great deal of embarrassment for its future users. The idea is to link your brain (initially through specially designed headsets, and later through chips embedded somewhere on your body) to a variety of inanimate objects such as computers and smart phones so you can control them using nothing more than your thoughts. Just think about calling Sally, and voila, the phone dials her number.

While the prospect of jump-starting singularity may give Ray Kurzweil chills, there are some obvious concerns. For one thing, we don't control our thoughts. Most of them randomly pop into our heads, unbidden. Young men, for example, are said to think about sex every few minutes. Poor Sally's phone will be ringing night and day. Let's face it, most thoughts are not meant to be acted upon. When your robot misunderstands your fleeting thought that the world would be better off if (fill in the blank) were dead, oh what a fascinating trial that will be. Gives new meaning to "don't give it a second thought."

The fourth prediction is that spam will be composted into the most useful thing since the zipper was invented. IBM researchers are developing technology that uses real-time analytics to make sense of your scattered, eclectic online existence. Your activities on social networks and your online preferences (and god knows what else) will be scrutinized to anticipate your specific desires and cater to your particular (and in some cases, peculiar) tastes. There will still be plenty of marketing, but researchers claim you won't experience it as spam because it will be so useful to you. Sure it will. That's like saying you won't experience a root canal as dentistry because fixing your teeth is useful.

On the other end of the spectrum, the same researchers claim that spam filters will be so air-tight that nothing unwanted will get by them. So, theoretically, you will be able to stop the marketers before they take up permanent residence in your frontal cortex.

The last IBM prediction is that because of price/performance advances, mobile technology will become available to 80 percent of the global population. Thus, hundreds of millions of information have-nots will join their information-overloaded brothers and sisters. A chicken in every pot, and a smartphone in every pocket. It sounds like a poor substitute for food, shelter, and clean water, but at least the hungry will be able to order a pizza.

That's the news from Punxsutawney Blue, where the researchers are merry and bright and all their pre-dic-tions are right. Well, most of them.

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