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Identify the problem, create the solution

As usual, IBM inventors were hard at work in 2010

5,896. A record number of U.S. patents, more than any other company, for the 18th year in a row. The total exceeds those of Microsoft, HP, Oracle, EMC and Google combined.

More than 7,000 IBM inventors residing in 46 different U.S. states and 29 countries produced the wide range of inventions in myriad technology categories. Like the first IBM patent for data recording technology in 1911, many of these inventions work behind the scenes in data centers and labs, and beyond the average person's radar.

For example, news of the patent about enabling computer chips to communicate with light pulses instead of the standard electrical signals might not be the subject of your next Twitter message...but it could help you post that tweet much faster.

Here, we look at five examples of IBM patents we can all understand. They're designed to improve healthcare, disaster response, and traffic and transport—and can benefit our everyday lives, every day.

18 years at the top of the patent list. 5,896 patents -- a record. 7,000 IBM investors in 29 countries.

Healthcare confidential
One of the first concerns most people express about electronic records is about privacy. How secure are records stored electronically? How confidential can we expect our medical history and billing records to stay? With this invention, a record selection manager prevents unauthorized viewing by requiring a user to respond to a series of attribute information requests, sort of like advancing rounds on a game show. Confidential records remain concealed until the record selection manager identifies the exact pertinent data, and reveals no more than that authorized information. (U.S. Patent #7644068)

Earth-shaking innovation
Your computer's shock absorbers—the MEMS accelerometers that sense vibration harmful to hard disk drives—can take on a second job as early warning systems for natural disasters. The same technology that senses unusual shock patterns that can damage a hard drive can also pick up terrestrial vibrations. Thus, provide an early warning system for tsunamis, analyze seismic events such as earthquakes, and rapidly measure and analyze the damage zone to contribute to data used by emergency responsers as they set response priority. (U.S. Patent #7693663)

Ideas that move us
"Traffic! Don't even get me started talking about traffic!" You could have less to complain about, based on these three inventions:

  • Personalized routing: What's the least expensive way for your vehicle to take you somewhere? Using advanced street mapping, past event and fuel logs, and location-based services, drivers can use this method to calculate fuel-efficient routes for their particular vehicle on any given date and time. (U.S. Patent #7778769)
  • Every car a reporter: What more direct way to learn the state of traffic, than have the traffic tell us itself? Using short-range wireless signals, vehicles moving in opposite directions exchange information about the speed and volume of traffic around them, and the data is consolidated and used to predict traffic conditions. (U.S. Patent #7760112)
  • Sensing trouble: How about predicting traffic jams and curbing them before they happen? Sensors pick up on traffic flow and send data to a server network, where an algorithm is applied to point out potential trouble spots. A signal goes out to that spot's system controllers to help change conditions and head off congestion. (U.S. Patent #7725250)

1. Data provided by IFI CLAIMS Patent Services