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Over The Next 5 Years, IBM Sees Atoms Fusing With Bits To Create New Insights

2017 January 25

When René Descartes wrote “I think, therefore I am” in the mid 1600s, he was doing more than coining a clever phrase, he was making an argument for a rational world ruled by pure logic. He believed that you could find the answers to problems you needed to solve merely by thinking about them clearly.

Yet Descartes and his rational movement soon ran out of steam. Many of the great minds that followed, such as John Locke and David Hume, took a more empirical view and argued that we can only truly understand the world around us through our experiences, however flawed and limited they may be.

A similar tension has been brewing in the 21st century with big data being used to build predictive models that drive human decisions. However, in its 5 in 5 — five predictions for the next five years — IBM Research sees a new era emerging in which software and instrumentation will combine to give us unprecedented insights into the physical world.

1. Artificial Intelligence Will Become A Diagnostic Tool

In 1986, two IBM researchers, Georg Bednorz and Alex Müller discovered high temperature superconductors. Until then, it was thought that superconductivity was only possible at temperatures near absolute zero, which required materials to be cooled with liquid helium. At higher temperatures, the vastly cheaper and more abundant liquid nitrogen could be used.

The breakthrough unleashed a number of new applications, including the MRI machines that are now so ubiquitous at hospitals and medical centers. Unlike X-rays, which can create images of bones, MRI’s help doctors see inside soft tissues and do not emit radiation, allowing them to more effectively treat a wide variety of injuries and ailments.

Today, even more than many physical diseases, mental health has become a huge driver of medical costs. One in five adults in the U.S. experiences a mental health condition and, globally, the cost of treating mental disorders is greater than the costs of diabetes, respiratory disorders and cancer combined.

At IBM, scientists are develop machine learning techniques that, combined with imaging technology, will help doctors diagnose psychiatric diseases through speech analysis. The hope is that, much like MRI’s, these will make previously inscrutable signs of mental illness more identifiable and treatable.

2. “Hyperimaging” Will Allow Us To See The Invisible

One of the reasons that Descartes believed in the superiority of logic over experience is that our senses can so easily be deceived. For example, drop a straight pencil in a glass of water and it will appear to be bent. It is only through rational thought that we can realize that a pencil in water only appears bent because of the way light refracts.

The problem, as it turns out, is far larger than Descartes realized. More than 99.9 percent of the electromagnetic spectrum is invisible to the human eye, which means that we miss more than we can see. While scientists have developed a number of technologies that can see other parts of the spectrum, like the scanning machines at security checkpoints in an airport, these tend to be highly specialized and expensive.

However, Dario Gil, Vice President of Science & Solutions at IBM Research, sees a much different future ahead. “Because of advances we have made, we will be able to combine conventional cameras that see the visible spectrum with a much broader range of wavelengths at a dramatically lower cost and size.”

These technologies already exist in IBM labs, but Gil predicts that in the next five years they will be integrated into consumer products. So, for example, we may be able to see through fog on a screen embedded on our vehicle dashboard and to use our smartphone on a camping trip to determine whether water in a stream is drinkable.

3. Macroscopes Will Understand Complex Physical Ecosystems

In 1609, Galileo Galilei first used the telescope to explore the heavens and changed our conception of the universe. A half century later, Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, invented the microscope and discovered an entirely new world made up of cells and fibers far too small for the human eye to detect.

Today, our problem is often not that things are too small or too far away, but that there is simply too much to make sense of. The Internet of Things has given us the power to take in data from millions of sensors around the planet, but we are able to make sense of a mere fraction of it. IBM is creating new technology that it calls “macroscopes”, which will help us understand data much as microscopes and telescopes enhanced our vision centuries ago.

In 2012, IBM began a project with E.&J. Gallo Winery in which it integrated data from sensors in the soil and irrigation systems with satellite images and other sources to optimize both yield and quality of its grape growing operation. The result was a 10 to 20 percent increase in production, while reducing water consumption by 20 percent.

However, to produce such results today requires highly qualified data scientists to prepare and analyze the data. In five years, IBM expects to automate this process, much like cameras today are able to autofocus on a particular object, to extend and democratize potential insights from the Internet of Things.

4. Medical Labs “On A Chip” Will Detect Diseases Even Before Symptoms Arise

One of the most important challenges our economy faces today is rising healthcare costs. After decades of growing faster than the economy, medical costs are spiraling out of control. According to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, in 2015 healthcare costs in the US rose 5.8% to $3.2 trillion or nearly 18% of the economy. Clearly this is unsustainable.

Better and cheaper laboratory testing may be part of the answer. Although lab tests make up only a small portion of overall healthcare costs, about $108 billion in 2015, it has been estimated that they play a role in 70% of medical decisions. Improving the accuracy and lowering the costs of these tests can have an outsize effect on diagnosis and treatment.

That’s one reason why IBM is working on “lab on a chip” technology. “The breakthrough here,” IBM’s Gil told me, “is that we can separate particles at a nanolevel, which will allow us to discriminate between chemicals in the body at an very high level of accuracy at a very low level of cost. That will enable us to diagnose disease even before there are any symptoms.”

Another benefit is that since data coming from labs on a chip will be digital, it will be easy to integrate with wearable technology, allowing medical professionals to monitor patients in real time, rather than only when they are able to come to the doctor’s office or lab.

5. Smart Sensors Will Detect Environmental Pollution Earlier and Cheaper

In October 2015, a massive natural gas leak was first detected in southern California. By the time it was finally sealed three months later, almost 100,000 tons of methane had poured into the atmosphere, Governor Jerry Brown had declared a state of emergency and 11,000 residents had to be evacuated. Clearly, if the leak had been detected before it became so enormous, much of the damage could have been prevented.

As part of the ARPA-E Methane Observation Networks with Innovative Technology to Obtain Reductions (MONITOR) program, IBM scientists are working to do just that by developing technology that will be small enough to be integrated with aerial drones or other existing infrastructure and cheap enough to be widely deployed.

“Our advances in silicon photonics will allow us to deploy functional spectrometers that can detect pollutants with a chip as small as a few millimeters. However, because these chips can be produced in a conventional fab, it will be extremely cheap, driving down the cost of environmental protection,” Gil told me.

Most of all, IBM hopes that by improving the tools of science, it will enable new insights and new understanding, much like people like Galileo and van Leeuwenhoek did long ago.

“The foundation of the scientific method is the ability to make observations and derive meaning from them in order to take actions and impact the world in a positive way,” Gil says. “By creating new and more powerful instrumentation, we hope to extend that tradition and give humans new capability and power to solve problems.”

– Greg


An earlier version of this article first appeared in

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