IBM Brain Trust Predicts That ‘Superhero Vision’ Is On Its Way

January 5, 2017, 7:35 AM UTC
A silicon wafer designed to sort particles found in bodily fluids for the purpose of early disease detection.
Courtesy of IBM

For the last decade, IBM has asked its brain trust of scientists and researchers to pick the five hottest of the hot technologies on the cusp of broad adoption. And 2017 is no different.

This year’s 5 in 5 list focuses on how advances in nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, and semiconductor fabrication can lead to a new generation of instruments and tools, says Dario Gil, vice president of science and solutions for IBM Research.

For example, IBMers say that hyper-imaging technology that use a broad swathe of the electromagnetic spectrum will see much more than is otherwise visible, giving devices what researchers are calling “superhero vision.”

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Hyper-imaging is now used by satellites to detect airborne contaminants or other factors, but it’s very pricey and specialized. Likewise, scanners used for medical and other purposes can see deep inside bodies or structures, but they are typically restricted by the spectrum bands they can see.

IBM’s researchers think a new generation of scanning devices that combine multiple mini-sensors will be able to see a much broader part of the spectrum and endow smartphones or tablets with the ability to see more than is visible to the human eye (which, by the way, can’t see 99.9% of the spectrum—so think of what we’re missing!).

There would also be obvious bonuses in security situations, where people or packages need to be scanned.

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Gil says the technology could let drivers see through fog, or watch for ice developing on the road that would otherwise appear invisible to the naked eye. Or your smartphone could be sensor-enabled, so you could look at your food to determine nutritional content—or lack thereof—based on the electromagnetic signature of the ingredients.

Another pick this year: IBM (IBM) says a new generation of tiny silicon sensors, studded with miniature pillars, will be able to strain blood, urine, or other bodily fluids to isolate minute particles, called exozomes.

These particles secreted by various organs hold genetic information, or biomarkers, that tell researchers something about the organ’s function, Gil told Fortune. They can be tested now, but again, the process is expensive and cumbersome.

“These sensors have nano-pillars on the silicon substrate, basically small posts separated by gaps of different sizes. By cleverly placing those pillars and having a large array of them, the fluid flows through and different exosomes can be isolated and collected,” Gil told Fortune.

Sensors like these, coupled with the artificial intelligence to compile and sort the information they provide, could make gear more affordable and widely deployed within five years.

Take a look here for the rest of IBM’s picks.

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