We mostly think of data as something we put in into the systems using electronic forms. Human operators pour in data all around the world. There is also data about data, which is what mostly computers do with their invisible algorithms, and then there is data generated by machines equipped with sensors that measure all sorts of parameters. Referred to as the Internet of Things, this network of devices collects data incessantly streaming them into large databases. This data stream is about to explode, dwarfing the data collected by human operators.
Take the healthcare for example. Traditionally, the data collection occurs at healthcare facilities. You go there, a friendly nurse plugs into you a device that measures your blood, your heart, whatever is needed to help doctors produce a diagnostic. Once you are done, the data stream stops. On exceptional occasions you are given a device to carry with you for data sampling. As the sensors become cheaper and smaller, when it comes to data collection the healthcare industry starts to blur the boundaries between the inside and the outside of their facilities. Carrying monitoring devices will become normal creating a huge amount of data.
Everything that touches our lives will be equipped with sensors: the house, the office, the cars, the roads, you name it. With IPv6, the number of connectable devices is practically unlimited. Someone calculated that 1038 IP addresses will be available. Imagine how that world will look like.
WiTricity, a company that invented a system of charging a battery wirelessly, is considering the idea of powering the cars through mini generators planted into the road. This is an incredible idea. Cars flowing (driverlessly?) through the highway absorbing power from the road as they roll smoothly to their destination will be in constant dialogue with a huge network of small devices designed to identify them, and measure the energy consumption and other parameters. This is a data flood alright.
Who or what is going to handle all this data? Who/what is going to make sense out of all this? Forget about privacy – that will go away anyway – there is no place to hide, but handling this data will be a huge challenge.
On one hand we will use analytical tools to examine data and make decisions. This is a slow process that suits us, humans, to have time to figure out things. On the other hand you need faster decision systems that will respond to situations. Large financial institutions in US are already going through a huge redesign of their organisations by replacing human traders with ultra-fast machines that could execute optimised trades at lightning speed. We will have that adopted in healthcare, in transportation and other areas.
A good question is what are the system design principles we need to adopt in a world of fast computers and of an infinity of networked devices? Do we need to learn completely new skills that allow us to handle the increased cognitive load and to interact with computer systems in radically different ways, skills that are not taught in schools or elsewhere? At the moment, there is a growing disconnect between a schooling system obsessed with assessing numeracy and literacy skills and the transformed world in which we live in. Perhaps the technical system design needs to be merged into a social system design so that we don’t rely on highly skilled analysts and machines for making decisions, but integrate the computer network within higher order social networks.
The term cognitive refers to mental processes such as judgement, reason, memory and perception. These are processes that alter the brain cognitive structures, which in effect are neural patterns representing information retained in the long term memory. The study of these activities is very complex and it is being shared by multiple disciplines that adopt a variety of approaches in describing what is going on in there: physiology, psychology, neuroscience, etc. However, we could say in a nutshell that cognitive processes are calculations, crunching information bits that flow into the brain system through various sensorial channels.
We mostly associate cognitive processes with thinking in a conscious state, but they can occur in other states. The keyword here is “thinking”. In computer speak, that is the running of an algorithm, the execution of program routines that break down the input data into components to assemble a response.
Computer systems do exactly the same thing in their silicon world, with one little important difference: all their programming routines are created by humans. Their thinking is a result of our thinking, which is an entirely rational cognitive process. Sure, we can get emotional in our programming, but in the end the lines of code must obey very dry syntax rules. No matter how hard we try, we can only code software that fakes emotion very well at best, but never software that is actually emotional.
In my mind, this is why artificial intelligence will never match our intelligence: it lacks emotional capability. Emotion is what drives us. Emotion is our most precious attribute that allows us to create something from nothing (almost). We don’t know how emotion really works, but you have a sense that if cognition is a calculation on which reason is based, emotion must be a super-calculation that takes place at deeper and inaccessible levels from which inspiration and unexpected creativity is drawn from.
But, this is a big BUT: is it possible that when you have billions of computers linked through a network, when their state change at huge scale as result of their rapid interaction and massive parallel sensorial input, to have waves of computation patterns forming unexpectedly, creating a significant response that never existed before and that was never programmed to occur, which will change the global distributed long-term memory in ways that will change their future behaviour? That is learning and creating emotionally, a capability specific to living systems.
I suspect that is already occurring, but we just don’t see it clearly yet. If we would take a closer look at the financial trading systems as they are networked around the world, maybe we see a glimpse of that. The quant trading systems that have been programs to crunch huge chunks of market information and detect human psychological patterns could display such “emotional” behaviour. I am not referring to them being programmed to behave emotionally, because they don’t for the reason I mentioned above, but because as they are networked at a massive scale receiving large amounts of input data, they could display “emotion”. I suspect the “glitch” that caused almost 1000 points drop in Dow Jones Industrial Average in May 2010 was in fact an “emotional” behaviour of these networked systems (it was not a bug).
That computational ability is a type of artificial intelligence indistinguishable from the natural. This would pass an imaginary Turing test with flying colours..
PS: Financial markets are one of the most networked systems at a global scale. There is more to come, see here (NYT, 2011)and here (CBS report). Also, social networks such as Facebook will likely display, if not already do, independent intelligent behaviour.