Is technology too important to be left to the Technologists?

31st Oct, 2014

We enjoyed preparing and delivering this month’s Trajectory Trends Breakfast – The Dawning Age of Connected Intelligence – encompassing as it did many of the major themes of recent years.

The over-arching message from the morning is that, as we move into a new phase of pervasive data and hyper-connectivity there is an urgent need to engage a much broader audience, including the public, state, regulators, civil society and business in debating the challenges arising.

Implicit in that statement is the idea that we are on the cusp of a new cycle of innovation, distinct from the information and telecommunications age that has driven the global economy forward over the last 40 years. If this is the case then perhaps – given what we have learnt about the impact of innovation cycles (popularised by the Gartner Hype Cycle) – we can afford to be more sanguine about the disruptive effects currently being experienced – particularly in terms of employment?

See Chetan Sharma Consulting for an excellent paper discussing this question and more here.

Overall the morning allowed us to combine a range of tech innovation themes – including Big Data Analytics, Mobility and Cloud Computing, the Internet of Things and therefore Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence – and so take a broader perspective than is usual in terms of the future.

One of the key areas of interest for us is the growth and transformation of what is loosely termed Big Data – especially with regard to the fundamental impact of the smartphone, social media and online search in digitizing and datafying ever broader and more complex areas of human behaviour – including our friendship and professional networks, our geographic footprints, our interests and priorities together with our biometric data.

The November edition of Wired includes an article – My Life for Sale – that brings up-to-date the consumer realities of living with big data analysis today.

For example, one company cited in the article claims to effectively profile a first time visitor to a website within 200 milliseconds. As impressive as that sounds the implications are more daunting – the analysis will inform the products and prices made available to you – without your knowledge.

As the article makes abundantly clear, our understanding of and approach to privacy is hopelessly outdated – if you aren’t persuaded take a look at a key source materials Big Data (Schonberger & Culkier) – and needs to be replaced as a matter of urgency with a new accountability framework.

More importantly the predictive promise of Big Data is in grave danger of being misunderstood and so misused, a critical issue in that it is the data/analytics that is the fuel behind the promise of the internet-of things or the internet-of-everything (or pervasive computing, ubiquitous computing etc.).

Big Data identifies correlations, it tells us WHAT, it has nothing to say about causality or WHY things happen – but we’re so hard-wired to think in terms of causality that we’ll inevitably use it that way.

Finally Big Data will never be Big Enough to capture all of reality (the dream of N=All). As such humility is required not hubris. This project is critical to our collective futures. Let’s try to get it right and not leave it the technologists, utopians or indeed to Big Business or Big Government alone.