This January, IBM put out a list of what it thinks will be the top five technology trends over the next five years. One look at it and you'd probably cry - "What were they smoking!" Because the list reads a lot like science fiction.
1) You'll power your home with energy you create yourself
2) You'll never need a password again
3) You'll control computers with just your mind
4) Every one will be connected to the internet
5) Junk mail will become priority mail
Another PR stunt I thought. Until Dr Manish Gupta - Director, IBM Research - India; Chief Technologist, IBM India/South Asia told me calmly IBM spends approximately $6 billion annually on research and development. This not only includes this list - but a much longer, more complicated one with a huge clump of business trends that together suggest those five things will actually happen.
And then he said IBM's already working towards those goals. Putting in place new technologies, kicking off research, fine tuning product assembly lines. I still am not sure what to make of this. But recent events suggest the last of those pointers is already well on its way to fruition.
Junk Mail? Turns out it was a bit of creative license. According to Dr Manish Gupta, what that actually means is stuff we currently consider junk will soon become useful. Like advertising. Currently - web advertisements are either a painful nuisance or something safely avoided. Soon, it will become so targeted, so precisely tailored to our needs it will become something we look forward to.
Put that way, it just sounds believable. Google's already announced a revamp of its privacy policies. Facebook did that a while back. Tech pundits say both companies are moving to watch us more carefully on the net. To find out what we are interested in, what we need. And then show us ads to fulfill those needs.
The second last point? Another seemingly impossible goal. In India alone, we've got 1.2 billion people. Hardly ten per cent of us are connected to the web. How can the rest possibly get online in just five years?
But IBM's Dr Manish Gupta says PCs aren't going to drive the web in India. Instead, cell phones and wireless internet will. More than half of all Indians already own a cell phone. At the current rate of growth, five years is ample time for the rest to get one.
Instead of fancy smart phones, most phones in India will be dirt cheap, basic voice and messaging models. Lots of companies are perfecting technologies that'll help them grab information from the world wide web. A young start up in Kerala called Innoz already has a system running. You SMS their server a request for information on just about anything under the sun. Their computers do a quick web search, automatically compress that information into small packets of information and then send you short, simple SMS messages with the dope you wanted.
IBM itself has polished something called the Spoken Web. It's a two year old technology perfected here in India. Even people who've never learnt to read and write just dial a number and listen to posted information or ask a question. That question is saved as an audio file, which others in the network can hear whenever they are free. Something like a voice message. Those folks, often experts in the field, respond to the question with a recording of their own, which is posted on the site or sent back to the person who first made the query.
Think of what that could do for a farmer curious what next month's weather could do to his crops. Or the best prices his produce could get at next week's wholesale market in town. He won't need formal education to get precise information from a network of experts.
IBM plans to use the technology to create a full blown system analogous to the world wide web using a technology most of us all have in common - "speech", with all the info our conventional text and video based web has. Point number two on that list - about never needing a password again? IBM thinks your biometrics will be enough to get the job done. Your finger prints, Iris scans, facial characteristics and so on. That's more or less what the UID (Aadhar) project and now the National Population Register (NPR) also seem to claim.
That your unique biological markers will be enough to identify you correctly among millions of others. And deliver the services you deserve with the minimum fuss. To the layperson like me, that's a worrying thought. Because there are enough experts out there who say that your biometrics can be faked. A scamster who steals your conventional password can be taken care of. At worst, you change your password.
But how do you handle someone who's stolen everything that's unique about you? Who's copied your fingerprints, your eye patterns and everything else about you down to the last detail? IBM seems to believe that's not possible. Especially if their system cross checks a variety of biometrics before it gives anyone access. You could copy one or two markers they say. But not everything. The system is sure to trip a scamster up, they say.The other two points - lighting up your home with your own energy (via a treadmill, exer-cycle, whatever) and controlling your PC with just your brain, they do seem far out. But there have been successful experiments with both ideas in labs around the globe. If common folk like you and me will actually use them regularly within five years remains to be seen. But one thing seems clear. There are interesting times for Technology up ahead.