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As the countdown continues toward 2014, everyone seems to have crystal balls — even traditionally cautious companies like IBM. For the past eight years, Big Blue has been closing the year with a look at how future technology will affect our lives in the next five years its annual 5 in 5 report.

This year, it forecasts smarter cities, online angels, intuitive classrooms and DNA-based medicine. But the prediction with the most relevance to digital marketers is the shift from online to buying local.

Get Smart

Of course, since IBM has one of the world’s most advanced and extensive research and development operations, its predictions are based on more than simple finger-in-the-air guesses. So, when it suggests big data and cognitive systems will fundamentally change the way we live, learn and buy, people tend to listen.

But are digital marketers ready to embrace the fact "cognitive systems will make local buying smarter than online"? The idea is to "merge the immediacy of physical shopping with the intelligence of online shopping." In the next five years,

...local stores and shops will flip the javascript by giving us an immersive, mixed real and virtual experience. And being local will become increasingly important as shoppers demand the instant gratification of their purchases. Two day shipping will feel like snail mail when a local store can offer customers a variety of fast pick-up or delivery options, wherever they are."

So much for those 30-minute deliveries from Amazon Prime drones. The real force to reckon with may be cognitive systems like IBM’s Watson, which famously defeated two human champions on the TV game show Jeopardy.

According to IBM, vendors and researchers have already been touting the need for unified experiences across all channels. At the local store level, that translates to smarter in-store shopping. Sales personnel will have product information, product reviews and inventory information at their fingertips on their own mobile devices.

Watson is in the forefront with an app development platform that is already moving into the physical-virtual spaces. Watson will become your personal shopping assistant, IBM predicts. And that's not all.

Store associates will also have similar intelligent tech providing them instant product information, customer loyalty data, sales histories, user reviews, blogs and magazines, so that when you do need to talk with another human, they know exactly how to help.

Salesclerks will be able to offer personalized advice to customers, based on insights extracted from big data analytics. In this scenario, the easiest, most convenient and least expensive place to shop could be a neighborhood store. 

Other Predictions

Started in 2006, IBM’s annual 5-in-5 predictions have staked their credibility on current research or pilot projects. It predicted last year, for instance, that people will be able to touch through their smartphones and that computers would have a sense of smell. Back in 2008, it forecast Energy saving solar technology will be built into asphalt, paint and windows.

But back to the future. IBM research is currently developing online angels — or, rather, digital guardians analyze big data to detect possible breaches of your financial security. Based on years of data, it could know your likes and dislikes, even things like your fears. A person with a fear of heights, for instance, would be unlikely to buy mountain climbing gear, making any such purchase suspect. Additionally, it would be aware of the patterns your fingers create when they interact with touch-screen devices, and lock your account if the pattern is unrecognized.

IBM also predicts the dawn of the intuitive classroom, or what it calls a "classroom that learns you," with cloud-based cognitive systems that analyze student data over time and help teachers identify learning styles, needs and opportunities for each student. Cloud-based, modular learning materials could be customized for specific gaps in a student’s understanding of a subject or presented in a way that takes advantage of different modes of learning. “It’s the end of the era of one size fits all education,” IBM boasts.

Living Smarter 

If big data-driven systems can help teachers and educational systems learn about you, they can also help cities make it easier for you to live in them. Crowdsourcing apps are already being used in some forward-looking urban environments, helping city administrations to know which local issues, down to a particular pothole, are of concern to most people.

Bus routes could be managed dynamically so that more vehicles were dispatched on days ridership spiked, rather than relying on fixed schedules that result in too many empty seats. Other municipal resources could be better maintained by providing data on things the location of garbage bins that need to be emptied or buildings that are empty and don’t need as many lights.

Watson is also key to IBM’s prediction about personalized medicine. DNA, the company predicts, will be more widely employed to pinpoint cancer therapy for patients. While full DNA sequencing is already helping some patients fight cancer, IBM predicts cognitive systems connected in the cloud will bring these tailored treatment options to more patients around the world.

So what's your impression of the predictions: fantasies or visions of the future?