How can ICT companies create new services which capitalise on available data in order to comprehend people’s real needs? By enabling computers and smartphones to ‘sense’ the real world, says the IBM 2012 Forecast.

Augmenting the Five Senses: Cognitive Computing Coming Soon

Computers and smartphones are nowadays able to process huge quantities of data. However, in the next five years they are set to incorporate more advanced capabilities such as mimicking the five human senses, thus greatly expanding the range of uses available. Researchers contributing to the seventh "IBM 5 in 5",  forecast predict that within five years human beings will be more informed, efficient and ultimately productive as their ICT devices become able to draw on a much wider range of available sensory information. The technological advances just around the corner should also help people to make better decisions and enjoy better lives – especially to improve their lifestyles and generally get more out of life, not least in terms of better health – surmounting barriers of geography, language and cost. The IBM ‘forward thinkers’ reckon that ICT devices will soon be capable not only of understanding how users perceive the environment through their cognitive capabilities but also of simulating and interpreting them, i.e. “they will be able to learn rather than just passively rely on programming.”

Technological advances will harness Big Data      

For example, a computer’s ‘visual’ faculties will soon enable it to identify any object whatsoever without any human go-between. Artificial hearing will be able perceive many different types of sound, identify where a sound comes from, and in addition interpret sounds in a way humans can understand. On the olfactory front, a computer will be able to recognise the chemical origins of a particular odour and so help to detect and prevent disease. In the domain of taste, your device will be able to analyse your nutritional needs while also taking account of your food likes and dislikes so as to provide you with a unique, tailored menu plan.  Regarding the fifth sense – touch – infrared and haptic technologies will enable a smartphone's touchscreen technology and vibration capabilities to simulate the physical sensation of touching something, the texture of a material for example, or a person’s skin, in a way that the brain can intuitively recognise.  To achieve all this functionality, many different technologies will have to be brought together and much work still needs to be done to give ICT devices an intuitive and interpretative capability. The final piece of the puzzle will be leveraging Big Data, say the IBM researchers, i.e. calling on the massive amounts of information being stored in order to provide the data analysis that will support the devices’ sensory capabilities. 

Infinite possibilities still to be identified

As far as sight and hearing are concerned, a computer will use software which can extract and contextualise large quantities of visual and audio information, with advanced capabilities for analysing and storing data. To simulate the senses of taste and smell, a computer should within five years be able to use a range of sensors and then apply algorithms which can break down and classify data for each food element and smell according to its chemical structure. The computer will be able to record a person’s favourite tastes and then suggest food items and a suitable diet plan, and also spot harmful substances in the environment. IBM sees uses for these technologies in a variety of domains, including health, agriculture, nutrition and, more generally, customer service. Last but not least, the IBM ‘forward thinkers’ reckon the software development and data collection involved in the work should also help to foster structured, efficient networksand so cement relationships among the many researchers working together on these projects.