I was scanning absent-mindedly the public transport vehicles parading in front of me when I noticed a new bus model. That happened not because it was dramatically different, but because it was red and it stopped in a place usually visited by blue buses. That gets my attention! While my unconscious was busy observing colours, my conscious-self stopped to examine an unusual video-camera. How cute! Protruding from the exterior top-edge of the bus, just above the mid-doors, the device was almost unnoticeable. Just like a little rounded soft bump, the camera had its own electronic eye looking down towards the door and the back of the bus. It reminded me of the chameleon.
At that moment the image of the bus, people waiting and moving slowly through the mid section to take their seats, the cameras and the monitor hanging on the ceiling with its images silently switching at regular intervals from one view to another, the whole picture stroke me as how much our urban environment has changed, almost by stealth. The bus – the symbol of slow pace and simplicity- has become such a sophisticated electronic beast. Video sensors are all over it communicating continuously with a central base. The entire vehicle has become a data collector, not just a record keeper to be used only in case of public disorder. Think about how quickly the quality of the monitors has improved in the past decade. The video frames were a joke. Who could identify anyone that committed a crime from a trail of rough pixels smudged over a screen with dubious colours? We now have HD. Faces are easily identifiable; everyone’s face.
Notice how this is a two-edged sword: it is easier to catch a few trouble makers, but it is also easier to monitor everyone else. This system could be used to track your normal citizens who are blissfully unaware that someone is watching them. We do have the technology now to raise the surveillance bar to dangerous levels, and no one knows for sure how this is going to end-up. Face recognition technology means that someone with access to public data could trace your movements during the day by simply running a process that identifies your face and re-constructs your day. A commercial firm in UK used facial images of people who ‘like’ a retailer’s Facebook page to identify those who visit the shop in person with video cameras installed on the premises. This works great for targeted advertising.
So what? This is better service, isn’t it? It is true, well, at least not dangerous. But what if something or someone wants to get something by influencing the public to agree with an idea, which is not necessarily good for the people, but certainly for the benefit of the few? They could target all those individuals that have similar patterns to inoculate message with deep emotional impact, in a way that doesn’t involve obvious advertising, but personal and ‘natural’ communication. This entity could be anything. Anything that is able to conceive a goal that can be described in broad terms: patterns, data, large scale behaviours. Such a goal has no room for personal considerations of the many of us.
The bus I chose to pick on is chicken feed. You want something scarier? Meet ARGUS: the world’s highest resolution video surveillance platform.
With its 1.8 gigapixel video camera, ARGUS can create contextual movements of individual, vehicles, or anything sizeable that moves, for the duration of any day, in the area in which this device was ordered to scan.
I am not a fan of conspiracy theories at all. I am even sceptical that any individual or group of individual would be able to exploit this vast network of sensors and data in which we are enmeshed and destined to become smaller (even though smart!) nodes stripped of any major significance as individuals. But I wonder if the sheer size of this nervous system isn’t bound to create a consciousness that may set goals beyond our grasp. The internet of things will definitely make this more interesting over the next decade.
I recall the day when I bought a Gateway PC (this was about 17 years ago, I think) that came with a Kodak camera (DC25) equipped with a 256k pixels sensor. A few months ago I got a 36M pixels camera. This is an increase of over 1,000 times in resolution. Imagine what kind of world we will live in twenty years from now, with software that will be able to sift through mountains of data and find you wherever you are no matter what you do. What is the meaning of privacy, security and individual freedom in a world like that?
A smartphone today has more computational power than Apollo 13. The computerised devices around us are increasingly smarter and they multiply at high speed changing the ecosystem in which we live. Some of us may feel suffocated by this change and with all the software code we use every day it seems human emotion is valued less and less.
One of the changes becoming more visible by the passing of each day is the invasion of data in the way we think. The digital replaces the analogue. Every move is broken down into small components and expressed into a binary form. Time is digital, distance is digital, the images are digital and the sounds are digital. The last two frontiers resisting to conversion are the tactile and the smell sense, but it is just a matter of time before they capitulate.
Has the technology made us less human?
It all started with “let’s improve our lives”. The cars have better controls, the phones are more convenient and helpful and the digital cameras are so good in capturing personal memories. At a personal level, this is a welcome upgrade. We like that.
But then, gradually, as these devices kept crunching numbers and generating more data than ever, a new development has grown out of the science labs into the daily life of the average person. This new wave of change is incessant and unforgiving. We were comfortable with the introduction of computing units at the beginning because the adoption process was so familiar: it was industrial, it was large and remote. The Univac, the IBM mainframes and the likes fit our industrial model of the world. There was a kind of order we were used to and we liked: punching cards required scheduling and approval from authority; the computer rooms had managers who made decisions after careful and lengthy considerations. In the old James Bond movies the computer labs are static, inflexible and secretive.
Digital change comes in waves
The first wave was about the macro-economy. Large data bits helped the modelling (through accidental and implicit development or by design) national economies and world trade in new ways leading to globalisation. The abundance of data changes the way nations trade among themselves, how populations live and how big infrastructure projects are built. One example in which this change had an impact on the human expression is tourism. Kevin Kelly (in “Pre-Globalization”) remarked how we lost in one swoop access to great historical and human treasures hidden in distant corners of the world. “Now every village gets visitors every now and then. Just as you get electricity, you get visitors. Multiplied by millions every year, the exchange produces a subtle leavening, a quiet education; a silent bridging that may in the end be as powerful as electricity and roads”.
The second wave brought change at home, at school, at work at individual level. You could call this the BYOD wave. It’s all about personal stuff. Maybe this started in the 90s when the PC started slowly to make its way into our lives with CD-ROMs, games and word processors. It is still happening at much accelerated pace: smartphones, tablets, heart monitors, digital cameras, etc.
The third wave, which started about 10 years ago, is about big data. Amazon was probably the first to recognise the value of customer data and monetise it successfully. Large networks received bits of information generated by our interaction with the electronic medium and make sense of what happens by reading behavioural patterns. All these innocent and cute devices that we love to have are in fact little Trojan horses opening the doors to a scary guy called Big Data. This guy is demanding now that we do things differently, forget about our old ‘human’ ways and learn new rational tricks.
Take this as an example: Progressive Insurance offers an insurance plan 30% less expensive if you agree to install a black box called Snapshot on your car. This device counts how often your slam you breaks, how many miles you drive and how often you drive between midnight and 4am. This a classic behavioural learning scheme based on stimuli and response. We are like lab rats.
Skills from out-of-body experience
The most unsettling aspect of the way big data influences our lives is that it diminished the value of knowledge accumulated through direct personal experience. As an individual we need to get good skills at learning about global knowledge and understand the large patterns. Intuition and emotion are very important, but it is essential to get better at bypassing emotional impulses based on individual experience in favour of “emotional” data patterns based on the experience of large groups. We need to develop antennas that capture large social digital signals.
So, are we less human?
In the grand scheme of things, the answer is no. We will be just different. If you take a hard look at our past, we were not that human as we want us to believe. Let’s not forget that there was a time when we thought children are little monsters and their evil needed to be eliminated through pain. Beating was OK. Jonathan Swift even proposed poor parents eat their children to reduce their burden and for the benefit of the public.
To survive, the human race needed to adopt behaviours that while cruel from a modern perspective it made sense at the time. We are readier to understand this when we observe other species. We watch on TV how lions kill the cubs bestowed with the ‘wrong’ DNA and we listen thoughtfully the voice of the narrator that explains that this is just natural selection. If we were an alien sitting on a distant couch and watch us changing family values, adopt new social norms and promotion systems would we be surprised at all about our new adopted behaviours? Not likely.
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.