A silicon wafer designed to sort particles found in bodily fluids for the purpose of early disease detection. (Credit: IBM Research).

Published: January 6th, 2017

IBM is taking steps to make the world a better place.

The company has unveiled its annual ‘Five in Five’ list today, which lays out some of the most important and groundbreaking scientific innovations that, in the next five years, could have the potential to drastically alter the way people work, live and interact.

This year’s overarching theme is “making the invisible visible,” with IBM highlighting artificial intelligence (AI), hyperimaging, macroscopes, chip technology, and smart sensors as technologies that could have a big impact on life as we know it.

We break down IBM’s predictions below:

With AI, our words will open a window into our mental health

One in five Canadians will experience a mental illness in their lifetime, according to the Canadian Mental Health Association, and IBM is working to assist those who suffer.

The company is developing AI systems with machine learning capabilities that can analyze and find patterns in human speech and written words, which it hopes will ultimately help health professionals predict, identify and monitor various illnesses, such as schizophrenia, mania and depression. It hopes that similar techniques can be used to help patients with Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, Huntington’s disease, PTSD, and even neurodevelopmental conditions such as autism and ADHD.

“Cognitive computers can analyze a patient’s speech or written words to look for tell-tale indicators [of illness] found in language, including meaning, syntax and intonation,” the company says in a Jan. 5 press release. “Combining the results of these measurements with those from wearable devices and imaging systems and collected in a secure network can paint a more complete picture of the individual for health professionals to better identify, understand, and treat the underlying disease.”

IBM hopes that this technology, along with traditional clinical visits, will transform what were once invisible signs of suffering into “clear signals of a patients’ likelihood of entering a certain mental state or how well their treatment plan is working.”

Hyperimaging and AI will give us superhero vision

More than 99.9 percent of the electromagnetic spectrum cannot be observed by the naked eye, and while scientists have spent the last century building instruments to sense different wavelengths, these tools generally remain expensive and specialized.

Scientists at IBM are currently building a compact hyperimaging platform that can “see” across the many levels of the electromagnetic spectrum. The hope is that this technology, along with AI, will help humans see “beyond the domain of visible light” to reveal what would otherwise be unknown or hidden from plain sight.

This could assist drivers in hazardous traffic or weather conditions see more clearly, help self-driving cars operate more efficiently, or even confirm whether a bank check or pharmaceutical drug is real or fraudulent, the company speculates.

It predicts these devices to be portable and affordable for the everyday consumer, and even sees the opportunity to embed the technology in mobile phones to make it as least disruptive as possible.

Macroscopes will help us understand Earth’s complexity in infinite detail

With the emergence of connected devices and the Internet of Things (IoT), millions of exabytes of data are collected every year – however, much of it goes to waste. In fact, Berkeley reports that 80 per cent of a scientist’s time is spent scrubbing data instead of analyzing and understanding what was collected.

IBM hopes to change that using machine-learning software to organize the information. It has developed a “macroscope” to help bring together the vast amount of data gathered into something humans can comprehend and use to better various processes and activities.

“Unlike the microscope to see the very small, or the telescope that can see far away, [the macroscope] is a system of software and algorithms to bring all of Earth’s complex data together to analyze it for meaning,” the company says.

For example, farmers can use data on climate, soil conditions, water levels and their relationship to irrigation practices to make better crop choices and decisions on where to plant and how to conserve water. It tested the concept at a Californian winery in 2012 and saw success.

Beyond Earth, the technology could also be used to predict asteroid collisions and learn more about their composition.

Medical labs “on a chip” will serve as health detectives for tracing disease at the nanoscale

IBM predicts that within the next five years, nanotechnology will act as a first response medical team by “tracing invisible clues in our bodily fluids and letting us know immediately if we have reason to see a doctor.” It hopes to shrink down all the processes necessary in analyzing a disease – which would normally be carried out in a full-scale biochemistry lab – to a single silicon chip.

Company scientists are developing “lab-on-a-chip” technology “that can separate and isolate bioparticles down to 20 nanometers in diameter, a scale that gives access to DNA, viruses and exosomes.” This technology would potentially be able to reveal diseases before symptoms are even shown.

IBM hopes such technology could eventually be incorporated into a handheld device, as well as combined with IoT products, such as sleep monitors and smart watches, to be analyzed by AI systems for insight.

“When taken together, this data set will give us an in-depth view of our health and alert us to the first signs of trouble, helping to stop disease before it progresses,” the company reports.

Smart sensors will detect environmental pollution at the speed of light

To combat pollution and climate change, IBM is developing affordable sensing technologies that can be used by the energy industry to detect leaks around extraction wells, storage facilities and distribution pipelines in real time. For example, the company is working with natural gas producer Southwestern Energy to design an intelligence methane monitoring system as part of the ARPA-E Methane Observation Networks with Innovative Technology to Obtain Reductions (MONITOR) program.

IBM’s research is focused on using silicon photonics, “an evolving technology that transfers data by light, allowing computing literally at the speed of light.” It says chips made with this technology could be embedded in a network of sensors on the ground, or within infrastructure, or even fly on autonomous drones.

In five years, IBM foresees networks of such IoT connected sensors that could alert the industry of leaks in a matter of minutes instead of days or weeks, which could drastically reduce waste and the likelihood of catastrophic events. Combined with real-time wind data, satellite data and other sources, such technology “can be used to build complex environmental models to detect the origin and quantity of pollutants as they occur.”



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