Welcome to the machine

by Jamie Stantonian on 28 September 2018

Fortunes will be made in the scramble to build the Data-Driven Society. But what sort of society will it be?

Are you concerned that you're eating too fast? Fret not, my friends, HAPIfork is here to alleviate this burden. This bluetooth enabled kitchen utensil tracks how fast you eat and vibrates to tell you to slow down, and to assist you on this transformation, also lets you sign up to a coaching programme to track the history of your eating pace on an accompanying app. You can even share your progress with the HAPIfork community, should the mood take you. MyVessyl, another example of this genre, chemically analyses everything you drink so you can shame yourself into a healthier lifestyle.

I spotlight HAPIfork and MyVesyl not to pick on them?—?there are good reasons to eat more slowly or drink less booze?—?but rather to illustrate the comically fine-grained detail our behaviour can now be tracked and scrutinised with modern technology. While early internet-connected fridges were content with just sending you a friendly message to say that your food had spoiled, this new generation of devices?—?crammed with inexpensive sensors?—?are harvesting the sweet, sweet nectar of personal data and playing it back to us at varying levels of usefulness.

Several technology trends are converging on what one might charitably call "benevolent surveillance"; the Internet of Things, Smart Homes and Smart Cities. If you're outside of the tech industry these are terms you may have heard perhaps through the blabbering of your techy friends, so this piece is designed as part primer and part exploration of some of the potential consequences, good and bad.

There’s also a box that lets you smell tweets and a prayer mat that glows when it faces Mecca...
This is the future; Disney by way of Philip K Dick.

Internet connected egg-trays

First some background; because of the plummeting cost and size of sensor technologies and batteries, anything can be turned into a device that can be aware of its environment and send information to the internet. Technology analyst R. Scott Raynovich has claimed it is "the biggest technology opportunity ever" and will be a $19 trillion market in the next five years. Such hype has led to something of a gold rush.

While there's a good chance your sensor-crammed phones, cars or watches are already internet connected and hoovering up data about your behaviour, they will very soon be joined by items including:

  • jewellery
  • plant pots
  • doorknobs
  • toothbrush
  • tennis rackets
  • pens, socks
  • shirts
  • mirrors
  • egg trays.

There's also a box that lets you to smell tweets and a prayer mat that glows when it faces Mecca. Such items are just a small sample of what is to come.

Within a few years there could be anywhere between 26 and 212 billion devices on the market. Maybe a trillion by 2035, according to Thingworx' John Chambers. So, take a look around your environment and imagine the objects in it are not just aware, but are constantly studying you and passing judgement on your personal habits. This is the future; Disney by way of Philip K Dick.

You may have?—?or know someone who has?—?a Fitbit or some other species of fitness trackers that measures cardiovascular data, stress levels and so on. They are but the vanguard. Google is developing smart contact lenses that can measure the glucose levels in your blood, to help monitor diabetes, there are also headbands that measure your brain activity or let you hack your dreams.

If you're a neurotic parent, that's covered too. Monbaby's little badge can be affixed to a child to monitor its bio-data, movement, breathing, orientation and activity level, while Pacif-i smart dummy which tracks baby's temperature and movement. Soon, all those baby photos you scroll past on Facebook could be accompanied by stats and infographics of baby's biological and behavioural development.

Science fiction writer Bruce Sterling coined a phrase to describe a future type of objects?—?Spimes?—?whose entire world-line through Space and time can be tracked, traced and scrutinised.

In other words, in the future people will be a Spimes too.


Imagine misplacing your keys. Instead of stomping around the house, upturning pillows for 20 minutes while your partner looks on in frustration, you could say "Computer: Where are my keys" and the house would tell you in a soothing voice they're in your coat pocket. This central hub to which everything you own is connected, this central intelligence that knows about everything you own?—?the "Smart House"?—?is the Iron Throne of the Internet of Things that many big players in the tech industry have already set their sights on. Through this, not only will you connect your smart-socks and talking spoons, but also your home security and CCTV and lighting systems, robotic domestic servants and of course, the classic internet connected white goods.

While there are some upstarts trying to get in on this market, such as the crowdsourced system Ecoisme, the tech giants are clawing each others eyes out to try dominate this lucrative market. Amazon, already a trillion dollar company comprised of robotic warehouses, currently dominates the voice market with its fleet of Alexa contraptions which account for 70% of the market, while Google?—?aided with more sophisticated voice recognition technology and more smarts?—?bites at its' heels with 24%. Apple, despite pleading with us to use Siri since 2011, trail behind with 6% of the market with its uninspired "Homepod" blob (Siri's befuddlement when talking to anyone not from a few postcodes in San Francisco can't help). Microsoft, despite having shipped 29.4 million Xbox One Consoles with Cortana voice assistant, have also somehow failed to capitalise on this, while Samsung's cauldron-like Galaxy Home remains an unknown.

But it is not just homes that will be laden with sensors; entire cities will be tracking everything that flows through them?—?people included. This ought to give us pause for thought when we consider that humanity will soon be an overwhelming urban species. By 2050, the UN predicts that there will be over six billion people inhabiting the sprawls and mega-cities of the future.


Screen Shot 2018-09-25 at 12.09.55.png

This 2014 UN report on urbanisation trends predicts that over six billion humans will live in cities in the next 35 years.

The "MVPs" of these smart-metropolises are already here. In the lead up to to 2014 World Cup Rio de Janeiro upgraded itself to a "smart city" by peppering itself with sensors managed by a central computer built by IBM?—?"Deep Thunder"?—?that calculates Rio's climate, topography, satellite data and rainfall logs to predict flash floods. But more than this, the HQ also acts as a central hub for the emergency services. As the Guardian reports;

"A giant wall monitor is broken into a grid of status graphs, meteorological reports and live video feeds from traffic and surveillance cameras. There are Google satellite and street maps networked to the city's information systems, which staff can toggle for close-ups and additional data overlays. A map might show the present location of every city bus, the nearest hospitals to an emergency or designated at-risk areas during storms."

While such systems are essentially retrofitting old architecture, in the near future both homes and entire cities will be pre-fitted with such nervous systems; as intimate a part of the infrastructure as plumbing and energy grids. In fact, you've probably seen one of these new-build smart cities already. Self-styled "city of the future" Songdo in South Korea provided the backdrop to Psy's Gangham Style, and looks to consciously combine the "smart home" and the "smart city" into a single integrated system.

Mock-up poster for Delta City - slogan is The future has a silver lining.

Built in conjunction with Cisco Systems and in a seeming endless state of construction, the sustainable city will feature ubiquitous sensors?-?in buildings, roads and apartments - ?to monitor the city's metabolism of traffic, temperature, energy flow, and people.

Each apartment in Songdo also come equipped with "TelePresence" systems that acts as TVs, internet, video-phone and user interfaces for your home. As Cisco's vice president Marthin De Beer outlined;

"That is how education, health care and government services will get delivered right into the home. It will come to you. You don't have to go find it. And that is how they will reduce traffic congestion and pollution in the cities... Today, you still go to see your banker, your lawyer, your accountant, your tutor, etc. Well, what if these services can come in a virtual model right into your home and you can consume them in that way?"

will also include ubiquitous surveillance systems, that will be monitored from NASA-like central control centres. If this doesn't set off the dystopia klaxon; there is also talk of every child in the city to be tagged with tracking bracelets, although even its planners now seem to now feel that was a step too far (It may explain in part why it has had difficulty getting people to move there). But with future cities crammed with smart objects and your phones, socks and shirts talking to satellites and server farms, are ominous tracking bracelets even necessary?

"Promethean fire"

There's a saying in the world of management that says "what isn't measured can't be managed". The logical consequence of this is that if everything is measured, everything can be managed. And if we're moving towards a society that's collectively measuring everything that happens to at least six billion people, every movement, word and heartbeat?—?indeed, every mouthful of food?—?we ought to pause for a moment and think though the potential consequences of all this before we "press start".

In just a few short years we are likely to have incredibly rich data available about the behaviour of virtually all humanity?—?on a continuous basis...

"What isn't measured can't be managed" is a phrase that turns up repeatedly in MIT researcher Alex Pentland's recent book "Social Physics", where he talks of the benefits of a "data-driven society" like something of a benevolent Bond villain:

"In just a few short years we are likely to have incredibly rich data available about the behaviour of virtually all humanity?—?on a continuous basis.... and once we develop a more precise visualisation of the patterns of human life, we can hope to understand and manage our modern society in ways better suited to our complex, interconnected network of humans and technology."

Having carried out many years of active research in what he calls "living laboratories" in which whole populations have been tracked with little smart badges, he and his team have developed mathematical models to predict behaviours, albeit in probabilistic ways. It's a system he calls "reality mining" and it will predict changes in your behaviour based on factors such as who you associate with. He thinks that in the future, the more data we can crunch the better we'll be able to make society by avoiding catastrophes:

"Imagine: we could predict and mitigate financial crashes, detect and prevent infectious diseases, use our natural resources more wisely, and encourage creativity to flourish and ghettos to diminish."

But he also adds:

"The vision of the data driven society implicitly assumes that the data will not be abused. However, the ability to see the details of the market, of political revolutions, and to be able to predict and control them is a case of promethean fire- it could be used for good or ill."

As implicit assumptions go, this is rather a large one, especially when throwing about phrases like "promethean fire". To be fair to Pentland, he has been actively involved at the highest level in trying to develop new systems for helping people taking control of their own personal data?—?what he calls a "New Deal on Data" which he feels is a requirement to get the best out of his vision. But presently, the work of putting in safeguards seems to be going at a glacial pace compared to the Moores-law adoption of new technologies.

In conclusion

Much benefit could come from a data-driven society, but no matter how much aspirational language it is dressed in, or life-affirming jangly guitar music it is set to, it is difficult to avoid the Orwellian perils that come along with it. Perhaps in our rush for a slice of the $19 trillion dollar pie, we should reflect on the type of society we're building in the process.

Article first published on?Medium

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