Will Computers One Day Have Human Senses?

IBM engineers believe that within five years, computers will be able to smell and feel.

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Ready for computers that can smell and touch? That's what computing giant IBM says is coming within the next five years in its annual look forward at emerging technologies.

In five years, computers may be able to diagnose illnesses based on your smell, will be able to analyze the sound of a baby's cry to determine what it wants, and smartphones may revolutionize online shopping by allowing people to "feel" a shirt's texture on specialized touchpads.

"Imagine a machine exists that's capable of identifying a billion different molecular fingerprints," says Bernie Meyerson, an IBM fellow who works on the company's annual "5 in 5" lists. "It could tell you what a well-cooked pork chop smells like, tell you if the food is rancid. It could also work in the medical area to help diagnose disease."

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Other innovations would allow a computer detection station to listen for sounds that serve as precursors to avalanches, mudslides, or other natural disasters. Meyerson says someday a phone's vibration feature and a series of thousands of tiny pins driven by motors could be used to replicate the textures of certain fabrics and embroidery to allow people to "touch" their clothes before they order them online.

"They could be heated individually to give you the sensation of friction, you could compare different fabrics in terms of roughness," he says. "The progress there is pretty amazing."

Some of IBM's annual predictions have proven a bit overambitious. The 3-D Internet they predicted in 2006 hasn't really taken off, but Meyerson says some of the predictions have been remarkably accurate.

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"There's always going to be a few that miss — any organization that's worth its salt should never get everything right, because that means you're going after low-hanging fruit," he says. "Five years ago, real-time speech translation was science fiction, something you'd see in Star Trek. Today, we're getting close."

Meyerson says that going forward, engineers will have to rethink how computers work and what a computer is. For the past several decades, the focus has been on making smaller and faster chips, but those are quickly hitting the limits of physics. He says IBM and other companies are working on "cognitive computing" — making computers that can essentially think for themselves and function with a more human-like logic instead of hard-coded true or false answers.

"If we keep dividing things, you get down to splitting atoms — that's nuclear fission. The laws of physics dictate that we're almost to the limit of what we can do," he says. "We need a paradigm shift that can give us a major jump."

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 Jason Koebler is a science and technology reporter for U.S. News & World Report. You can follow him on Twitter or reach him at jkoebler@usnews.com.