Computers that will see, hear, smell: Next, world domination?

IBM’s 5 in 5 -- a list of five innovations that could change the world in five years -- focuses on how computers are developing the ability to taste, touch, hear, see and listen just like humans do, except way better.

It is kind of exciting and kind of terrifying, but mostly just really cool.

For example, Hendrik Hamann, a research manager of physical systems for IBM, describes a smartphone that could use a computerized nose to “smell” if we are sick. Forget the thermometer and the doctor’s visit -- we will simply breathe into our cellphones to find out if we have the flu.


Robyn Schwartz describes how smartphones of the future might use vibrations to allow us to virtually “touch” a piece of material and feel its texture. This technology is already available for some video games, but she imagines a world in which online shoppers don’t just see and read about an item of clothing, they can stroke it as well.

Dimitri Kanevsky, a research scientists at IBM, explains that sound sensors may be able to “hear” an earthquake coming, long before a human would sense it. And John Smith explains that a computer that knows how to make sense of what it can “see” would be able to diagnose a cancerous growth on your skin.

Finally, Lav Varshney describes a computer program that can learn what pleases your taste buds on a molecular level, and can then design healthy recipes that taste delicious to you, based on that information.

So far, so cool, right? But what made me feel a little scared was this paragraph in an essay by IBM’s chief innovation officer, Bernard Meyerson, about this year’s 5 in 5.

He writes:

“In the coming years, computers will become even more adept at dealing with complexity. Rather than depending on humans to write software programs that tell them what to do, they will program themselves so they can adapt to changing realities and expectations. They’ll learn by interacting with data in all of its forms -- numbers, text, video, etc. And, increasingly, they’ll be designed so they think more like the humans.”

Later in the essay he explains that IBM is not interested in replacing human thinking with machine thinking. He actually says it twice. Instead he imagines a future where humans and machines work together to make the world a better place.

I hope that prediction, at least, is correct.


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