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IBM's '5 in 5' predicts what crazy scientific inventions may emerge in the next few years

Five years ago, few would have predicted that an artificial intelligence system named AlphaGo would defeat Lee Sedol, a Go master, at his own game. Even the experts thought the victory was at least another decade away. But earlier this year, the Google DeepMind algorithm conquered its human opponent to win the tournament 4-1.

AlphaGo is just one example of unforeseen AI progress over the past few years. And, as new trends and technologies emerge every week, who’s to say what the next five years have in store?

IBM has decided to take another stab at the idea in its annual IBM 5 in 5 predictions, in which the company uses market and societal trends to predict scientific innovations that will revolutionize our lives in the next half decade.

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“5 in 5 began as a way to demonstrate the most exciting developments coming out of IBM Research, to generate collaborative conversations about the possibilities for innovation across various industries, and to promote excitement about how technology can be applied to solve certain societal problems and improve our daily lives,” Dario Gil, vice president of science and solutions at IBM Research, told Digital Trends.

This year, the tech giant considered what instruments might make the invisible visible. Here are its predictions.

“With AI, our words will be a window into our mental health”

Mental health is a growing concern in communities around the world, where it serves as an emotional burden on people and economic burden on the societies they live in. Part of the difficulty is that, unlike most physical ailments, mental health conditions aren’t always easy to predict, prevent, or diagnose. But our words offer insight into our minds and researchers are unraveling the hidden messages within.

“In five years, what we say and write will be used as indicators of our mental health and physical well being,” IBM predicts. “Patterns in our speech and writing analyzed by new cognitive systems will provide tell-tale signs of early-stage mental and neurological diseases that can help doctors and patients better predict, monitor, and track these diseases.”

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Researchers have recently used brushstrokes to predict neurological disorders in artists. IBM predicts that AI will soon use things like syntax and intonation for similar ends.

“Hyperimaging and AI will give us superhero vision”

Hi-tech instruments already help us image difficult-to-see regions, from deep space to deep within our bodies. But, as IBM notes, these instruments are limited to specific functions.

“In five years, new imaging devices using hyperimaging technology and AI will help us see broadly beyond the domain of visible light by combining multiple bands of the electromagnetic spectrum to reveal valuable insights or potential dangers that would otherwise be unknown or hidden from view,” the company writes. “Most importantly, these devices will be portable, affordable, and accessible, so superhero vision can be part of our everyday experiences.”

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As example, imagine a car windshield that helps drivers peer through fog or detect black ice. Or imagine a smartphone camera that can snap a photo of your dinner and give a breakdown its nutritional value.

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

IBM takes “macroscopes” to mean an instrument that offers insight into the interconnected and complex nature of our planet. Rather than revealing a small thing within a big thing, macroscopes reveal a big thing through the many small things that make it up.

“In five years, we will use machine-learning algorithms and software to help us organize the information about the physical world to help bring the vast and complex data gathered by billions of devices within the range of our vision and understanding,” IBM predicts. “We call this a ‘macroscope’ — but unlike the microscope to see the very small, or the telescope that can see far away, it is a system of software and algorithms to bring all of Earth’s complex data together to analyze it for meaning.”

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

Take a functioning full-scale laboratory and crunch its capabilities down to something smaller than a USB stick — that’s a lab on a chip. Lab-on-a-chip technology may be able to detect biomakers from a handheld device, diagnosing diseases like Parkinson’s with ease.

“In the next five years, new medical labs on a chip will serve as nanotechnology health detectives — tracing invisible clues in our bodily fluids and letting us know immediately if we have reason to see a doctor,” IBM writes. “The goal is to shrink down to a single silicon chip all of the processes necessary to analyze a disease that would normally be carried out in a full-scale biochemistry lab.”

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The feasibility of labs-on-chips has been debated but, if they prove possible, they could revolutionize medicine and bring health care to people who are otherwise disadvantaged.

“Smart sensors will detect environmental pollution at the speed of light”

We typically can’t see pollutants until they’re well past the point of safe return. Think toxic waste and smog. However, smart sensors can already pick up on the otherwise invisible chemical patterns in the air and even in our breath. By combining these sensors with the Internet of Thing (IoT), we may be able to detect contaminants early to avoid catastrophic events.

“In five years, networks of IoT sensors wirelessly connected to the cloud will provide continuous monitoring of the vast natural gas infrastructure, allowing leaks to be found in a matter of minutes instead of weeks, reducing pollution and waste and the likelihood of catastrophic events,” IBM predicts.