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IBM predicts five biggest tech trends

IBM has released a series of predictions that they see as the five big new trends in tech for the next five years. These include programmable electricity meters, smart car sensors, smart shopping displays, phones as wallets and better nanotechnology techniques.
Written by Alex Serpo, Contributor

update IBM has released a series of predictions that they see as the five big new trends in tech for the next five years. These include programmable electricity meters, smart car sensors, smart shopping displays, phones as wallets and better nanotechnology techniques.

IBM's Glenn Wightwick spoke to ZDnet.com.au about these predictions, saying they arose from IBM's "global technology outlook" -- an exercise to predict future technology trends. IBM spends an estimated US$6.1 billion a year on research and development.

Wightwick commented that global technology outlook predictions are used to set future directions for IBM innovation investments.

Smart electricity meters
IBM's first prediction says that smart electricity meters could be used to better manage power use for consumers and utilities. Such meters could also be used by utilities to get better information about electricity use.

Citing a possible consumer application, Wightwick said, "I have motion detectors around the house, and if my little kids leave lights on in a room and there is nobody in there for five minutes, I can [use the smart meter to] turn those lights off automatically."

Wightwick said such devices would be of interest to both consumers and utilities and noted that "we are working with utilities around the world who are trying this". Wightwick confirmed that this included Australian utilities; but declined to name any.

Wightwick said IBM was betting on a big demand for such devices in the near future.

"We recognise that this is potentially an enormous business opportunity for IBM," he said, and the over the next five years IBM expects that such devices are "going to be commonplace".

Smart Cars
IBM's second prediction involves better car sensors that they hope could relieve traffic congestion and potentially help to reduce road accidents.

Wightwick commented that such innovations were a natural evolution from existing car technology.

"There is an enormous amount of computing power in cars today ... I think the logical extension of that is to have a set of sensors on cars, and have those sensors communicate with networks and other cars on the road."

Wightwick explained that such car networks could be based on short range, lower power wireless technology such as Zigbee. Such networks could deliver information to a driver on traffic conditions in real time.

"If you got a warning instantly that there was a potential accident down the road, you could avoid collisions," Wightwick said.

Smart Shopping
IBM's third prediction involves mobile devices shoppers could use to receive updated product information electronically.

Wightwick gave the example of supermarkets, where such devices could deliver information directly from the food supply chain, showing shoppers exactly where their purchase item came from and what was in it. Such devices could also be used to rapidly deliver product recall information.

Wightwick acknowledged that there were legal barriers in developing such devices, as it is likely food suppliers will not want to acknowledge that certain foods are genetically modified or come from the third world.

"I think it becomes an area of consumer demand driving government policy. You would need to have an appropriate legal framework to make this technology feasible," he said.

Wightwick noted that by collecting data on consumer purchase choices, IBM's smart shopping devices could be used to generate targeted advertising.

"Amazon and Google have indicated that people are willing to allow information about them to be used to generate appropriate and targeted advertising. I think you could apply that model here."

However Wightwick cautioned that such advertising would remain the choice of the consumer.

"Obviously you need have to some controls, so if you are not interested in that you can turn it off."

Phones as wallets
IBM's fourth prediction involves using phones to carry out electronic financial transactions, as well as to find local businesses and services.

Wightwick commented on the obvious security concerns for wireless financial transactions.

"There is some interesting technology coming out with ultra high frequency networks, where that network can only really be used within limited range."

Along with allowing consumers to carry out transactions, Wightwick also sees significant business potential in mobile phones distributing information to consumers.

"A good example is something like Google combined with the Yellow Pages; it is often the integration of those [databases] that generates the value."

However Wightwick saw this as a growth area for many businesses, not just large players like Google.

"I think a large number of companies have a place to play here. And I see some interesting business models that will emerge in this space."

Better nanoscale imaging
IBM's fifth prediction involves better nanoscale imaging -- which will improve circuit design and push forward the frontiers of medicine.

Wightwick cited a paper IBM research division published in the journal Nature Nanotechnology which describes a new type of nanoscale imaging; called Magnetic Resonance Force Microscopy MRFM.

The Nature Nanotechnology paper states the MRFM has allowed the IBM researchers to view objects with volumes of "less than 650 zeptolitres." Zepto represents a one followed by 21 zeros, so a zeptolitre is one billionth part of a trillionth of a litre.

Once this scale is put into context, the MRFM application in circuitry becomes obvious. Six hundred and fifty zeptolitres is a 90 by 90 by 80 nanometre cube, allowing researchers to study a scale that is similar to that uses when creating CPU architectures, such as Intel's 65 nanometre Tukwila.

Wightwick said that examining atoms at this scale could lead to a more fundamental understanding of integrated circuits.

Dan Ruger, an author of the paper, commented that he also saw exciting medical applications coming out of MRFM.

"It is our hope that MRFM will eventually be able to determine the structure of proteins by directly imaging the three-dimensional arrangements of atoms," he told ZDNet.com.au.

This could give researchers a rare insight into unknown medical frontiers.

"Most of the proteins in your body have no known structure... these proteins include most of the important transmembrane proteins that regulate cellular processes," Ruger said.

Ruger also said the IBM research team had recently made some significant advancements.

"We are exploring true three dimensional imaging on some native biological structures with much better resolution than in the Nature Nanotechnology paper."

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