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IBM's Top 5 Technology Predictions for the Next 5 Years

PRNewsFoto/IBM(NEW YORK) -- Who would have guessed, five years ago, that by 2011 we would have mobile phones that would, in a rudimentary way, listen to our questions and give us useful answers? Or ways for doctors to get help to people in the most remote corners of the world?

Crystal-ball forecasts, fanciful or otherwise, are a staple of year-end conversations, but IBM, the computer-services giant, has a research arm that makes them as a matter of course. Every December, it puts out a "5 in 5" list -- five predictions for the next five years. The company says it is a way to solve major societal problems, identify business opportunities, and, while they're at it, get people talking.

"It's a very good test of our ability to see forward in a holistic way," said Bernard Meyerson, IBM's vice president of innovation, who talked about how engineers, economists, marketers and others may all be involved in a multi-billion-dollar project. "You cannot survive long-term if you just concentrate on just one part of a problem. You'll get run over."

How good have their past predictions been? IBM says two of its five predictions from five years ago -- telemedicine and nanotechnology for environmental needs -- panned out, others less so (you still drive your car the same way, for instance).

Keeping score, though, is a little beside the point; setting goals for the future is more like it. So here is IBM's list of "the next 5 in 5."

1. Energy: People Power

Imagine generating electricity from routine motions around you -- using the tides to run power plants, or charging your cellphone battery by plugging it into a tiny generator attached to a wheel of your bicycle. It's kinetic energy. Remember that from third-grade science?

These are not that hard to do. We're not doing them. They could relieve the load on our overburdened power grid, reduce pollution and make power blackouts less of a worry.

2. Security: The End of Passwords

You need one password for your cellphone, another for your checking account, a different one for your email at work and at home -- and another for your list of passwords. Enough! A good hacker can go around them anyhow.

This is not really about passwords, says IBM, it's about personal security. Meyerson talks about "multifactor biometrics" as your way to prove to your digital tools that you're really you.

They're thinking of retinal scans, voice print identification, fingerprints and the like, used in combination. Much better than your dog's name followed by a number.

Meyerson says this could be liberating. You could be much more comfortable about storing vital information in a handheld or a tablet. The device becomes more useful to you -- and completely worthless to a would-be thief.

3. Reading Your Mind

We live in a primitive world. If you want a machine to do something, you press buttons or turn knobs. In a few limited cases ("What's your account number?" says the automated voice on the phone), it may understand your voice.

Every time you decide to push one of those buttons, though, you think about it -- and perhaps the minute electrical impulses in your brain can be read.

Primitive versions have already been used to help people with disabilities. The technology could be made cheaper and more common. Want to talk to your brother? Think about it and your phone will call him.

4. Ending the Digital Divide

Already, far more people get online through their cellphones than through plugged-in computers. Wireless access in countries like South Korea is considerably faster and more useful, says Paul Bloom of IBM, than it is in the U.S.

This could be expanded and be powerful. In a poor country, it is far easier and cheaper to set up wireless networks than it is to lay cables the old-fashioned way.

5. No More Junk Mail

Sure, the Postal Service is in trouble. People make online payments and send email instead of letters. Your mailbox instead overflows with flyers for things you could care less about. Your email is crowded with spam.

"But what if your handset learns your preferences?" asked Meyerson. "It'll take care of the junk mail you don't want." If it figures out you're a Greenday fan, for instance, it may already be letting you know when there are deals on tickets.

You may find this unsettling -- the machines have you figured out -- but Meyerson said you may like it. Advertisers will stop bothering you if they know they're wasting their time.

"It inverts the entire relationship between the target and the marketer," he said.

How many of these predictions will become real? Oh, probably very few, said Meyerson, but it's better to try and fail than do nothing.

"It's a wonderful way to live," he said. "You put an idea out there and run like hell."

And if you hear other companies' footsteps behind you? "You run faster."

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio


Fortune 500 Had Great Year, Still Aren't Hiring

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images(NEW YORK) -- "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…" The famous opening to Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities would have been an apt headline for this year's Fortune 500.

"It's the best of times for American big business. Profits were up over 80 percent for America's 500 largest companies," said Andy Serwer, Fortune's managing editor. The Fortune 500 ranks the top U.S. public companies as measured by gross revenue. That's the third-biggest jump since the magazine started keeping track. "Business is picking up again, and they're minting money right now."

How? That was the "worst of times" part.

"Big business is making a lot of money right now by making employees work that much harder," said Serwer.

To put it in economic terms, employees' productivity has grown. It had to when more work fell to fewer workers: unemployment remains high, at 8.8 percent.

The top of the list was studded with oil companies. After number-one Wal-Mart, the next three were ExxonMobil, Chevron and ConocoPhillips, whose profit was up 133 percent over the previous year.

"Oil companies make a lot of money...selling gasoline to Americans, and we can't get enough of it," said Serwer.

Given the current spike in oil prices, reflected in $4-per-gallon prices at the gas pump, oil companies could do even better on next year's list, Serwer said.

Apple, whose iPhone and iPad grew ever more popular last year, was up 21 places, to 35. Its profits were up 145 percent.

Homebuilders, after being shut out of last year's list due to the mortgage crisis, have crept back on, with two companies on the list.

General Motors was number eight, and AIG was 17. Both were huge beneficiaries of U.S. taxpayer bailouts. Even if many Americans are feeling like characters in another Dickens work, "Oliver Twist," asking for "more" work, at least they can say they made the Fortune 500.

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio

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