And air-breathing batteries, the end of traffic jams, cities heated by computer servers

Every year IBM surveys 3,000 of its engineers to predict five technological advances they think will take off within the next five years. One thing we can look forward to by 2015, Bloomberg reports, is holographic phone calls via mobile phone (think: Princess Leia's "Help me Obi-Wan" message projected by R2D2 in A New Hope).

Holographic phone calls lead the list which also includes air-breathing batteries, traffic jam-predicting computer programs, cities powered by computer servers' heat byproducts, and environmental information generated by sensors in cars and phones.

"These are all stretch goals, and that’s good," Paul Saffo, managing director of foresight at the investment-advisory firm Discern, told 
Bloomberg. "In an era when pessimism is the new black, a little dose of technological optimism is not a bad thing."

Aside from its entertainment value, the survey is important for IBM's own bottom line. IBM invested $5.8 billion in research and development last year, outspending its rivals. IBM's R&D figure accounted for 6.1 percent of revenue, while Hewlett-Packard spent only 2.4 percent of its revenue last year on R&D.

Many of the ideas that make IBM's yearly list reflect projects currently in development. Earlier this year, IBM teamed up with local and state agencies in California to crowdsource waterway monitoring. An app allows users to take a photo of rivers and streams and report back to the agencies, who don't have the means or the funds to monitor the waterways themselves. The environmental information sensors are an expansion on this project. 

"All this demonstrates a real culture of innovation at IBM and willingness to devote itself to solving some of the world’s biggest problems," Josephine Cheng, vice president at IBM’s Almaden lab, told 

IBM predicts that batteries could last 10 times longer in 2015 compared to today, because lithium-ion technology will be replaced with batteries made of energy-dense metals that recharge by interacting with the air.

Traffic jams will be lessened thanks to computer programs based on complex algorithms that, with the addition of real-time traffic info, can predict where and when traffic will happen. This information will be made available to drivers who will be told how to avoid being a victim of a jam. 

Finally, IBM says that almost half of a data center's power is used to keep the computers from over-heating. IBM engineers say that it would be more efficient to harness the heat produced by the computers to warm residential and commercial buildings.

However, you shouldn't put your money on all of IBM's predictions. In its first annual survey, conducted in 2006, the engineers predicted that instant speech translation would be the norm by now. While some, like Google, have made strides in the field, speech translation's ubiquity is limited, and the technology is still a work in progress. 

Another IBM prediction, this time in 2007, said that smartphones would act as wallets, ticket brokers, banks, and shopping assistants. That, to an extent, has already come true. Smartphone apps for Android, iOS, Blackberry, and Windows Phone 7 allow users to conduct online banking activities, pay bills, track spending, compare product prices, and buy tickets, all with a few clicks.

"The nice thing about the list is that it provokes thought," Saffo told 
Bloomberg. "If everything came true, they wouldn’t be doing their job."

"We’re Apple. We don’t wear suits. We don’t even own suits." -- Apple CEO Steve Jobs
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