Mark Davison at IBM Think, Las Vegas – IBM Think 2018 formally got underway when Arvind Krishna, IBM research director and senior vice-president, hybrid cloud, hosted what the company calls its annual Science Slam and where scientists and researchers had five minutes to elaborate on the five technologies they think will change the world over the next five years.

Krishna says that with more than 3 000 scientists in 12 laboratories on six continents, no company is better placed than IBM to predict which technologies are the ones to watch in the future.

“Our mission at IBM is to help our clients change the way the world works,” Krishna says. “There’s no better example of that than IBM Research’s annual ‘5 in 5’ technology predictions. Each year, we showcase some of the biggest breakthroughs coming out of IBM Research’s global labs – five technologies that we believe will fundamentally reshape business and society in the next five years. This innovation is informed by research taking place at IBM Labs, leading-edge work taking place with our clients, and trends we see in the tech/business landscape.”

Krishna listed the five key technologies IBM predicts will reshape our world as: Crypto-anchors; lattice cryptography; AI-powered robot microscopes; unbiased AI; and quantum computing.

“Collectively, they portend a powerful evolution in computing that will exceed anything we’ve previously seen,” Krishna says.

Andreas Kind, manager Industry Platforms and Blockchain at IBM, says that counterfeit goods accounted for $1,8-trillion in global revenue last year. “About 40% of all car parts used in repairs are counterfeit,” Kind says. “And a huge amount of the drugs we’re prescribed are recycled, contaminated and made weak with no active ingredients.

“The problem is that the global supply chains have become too complex,” he adds. “Goods are produced in one country, assembled in a second, and sold in a third. Also, e-commerce has made these counterfeit goods easy to sell.

“Within the next five years, cryptographic anchors — such as ink dots or tiny computers smaller than a grain of salt — will be embedded in everyday objects and devices,” Kind explains. “They’ll be used in tandem with blockchain’s distributed ledger technology to ensure an object’s authenticity from its point of origin to when it reaches the hands of the customer. These technologies pave the way for new solutions that tackle food safety, authenticity of manufactured components, genetically modified products, identification of counterfeit objects and provenance of luxury goods.”

Cecilia Boschini, predoctoral researcher, Lattice-based Cryptography, says that hackers are going to continue to hack systems … until they encounter lattice cryptography. ”The criminals are getting smarter, but we’re getting smarter too,” she says.

“IBM is developing encryption methods to keep pace with emerging technologies such as quantum computers, which will someday be able to break all current encryption protocols,” Boschini says. “IBM researchers have already developed a post-quantum encryption method – which we’ve submitted to the US government – called lattice cryptography. No computer can crack it, not even future quantum computers. With lattice cryptography we can work on a file, or encrypt it, without ever exposing sensitive data to hackers.”

It’s no secret that the world’s oceans are under severe threat from pollution, but Tom Zimmerman, Human/Machine Devices and Paradigm scientist, says AI-powered robot microscopes may save them..

“In five years, small, autonomous AI microscopes, networked in the cloud and deployed around the world, will continually monitor in realtime the health of one of Earth’s most important and threatened resources: water,” Zimmerman says. “IBM scientists are working on an approach that uses plankton, which are natural, biological sensors of aquatic health. AI microscopes can be placed in bodies of water to track plankton movement in 3D, in their natural environment, and use this information to predict their behavior and health. This could help in situations like oil spills and runoff from land-based pollution sources, and to predict threats such as red tides.”

Francesca Rossi, IBM’s global leader, AI ethics, has been studying artificial intelligence for 30 years and says she is excited to see the incredible enthusiasm around it today. But when it comes to bias in AI, she adds, we should be concerned.

“Why?” she asks. “Because it could lead to someone acting against someone else. And why would AI be biased? Because AI is trained by humans, and we know that humans have bias.”

She cites the example of facial recognition. “If you train AI on facial recognition with all-white people, it will have problems recognising people of another skin colour. Most current AI systems are bias, but we believe that over the next five years we can eliminate this one by one.

“Within five years, we will have new solutions to counter a substantial increase in the number of biased AI systems and algorithms,” Rossi says. “As we work to develop AI systems we can trust, it’s critical to develop and train these systems with data that is fair, interpretable and free of racial, gender, or ideological biases. With this goal in mind, IBM researchers developed a method to reduce the bias that may be present in a training dataset, such that any AI algorithm that later learns from that dataset will perpetuate as little inequity as possible. IBM scientists also devised a way to test AI systems even when the training data is not available.”

Talia Gershon, senior manager, AI Challenges and Quantum Experiences, says that while quantum computing may be researchers’ playground today, in the near future it will be mainstream.

“In five years, quantum computing will be used extensively by new categories of professionals and developers to solve problems once considered unsolvable,” Gershon says. “Quantum will be ubiquitous in university classrooms, and will even be available, to some degree, at the high school level. IBM researchers are already achieving major quantum chemistry milestones. They successfully simulated atomic bonding in beryllium hydride (BeH2), the most complex molecule ever simulated by a quantum computer. In the future, quantum computers will continue to address problems with ever increasing complexity, eventually catching up to and surpassing what we can do with classical machines alone.”

Krishna says that this year’s “5 in 5” is far more than a showcase of groundbreaking innovation, it is a reaffirmation of technology’s role as a force for good in a world that desperately needs it.

“Society’s ability to overcome intractable challenges and unprecedented threats depends on steady advancements in technologies like AI, blockchain, lattice cryptography and quantum computing – all of which IBM Research has invested in heavily,” he says. “We have our scientists to thank for making this essential progress possible – and for giving us powerful systems we can trust that enable us to look with renewed hope to the future.”