Digital connectivity: a space odyssey

Soon we will move through our environment in novel ways, our mobile devices acting as sensors, our personal data used to check our health and hi-tech glasses telling us about one another. Vision reports on a world of technology in perpetual motion

With nearly a billion active Facebook users online around the world and more than 11 new Twitter accounts created every second, we live in an age where people are more connected than ever before.

But technologists believe that this is just the beginning. With more than one in 10 of us keeping our mobile phones within three feet for 24 hours of the day, that connectivity is increasingly mobile. Within a few years, this will radically transform the way in which we communicate not just with one another but with the world around us.

User-generated content

One of the biggest driving forces of this technological revolution is big data analytics. This is the idea that through more sophisticated algorithms and larger amounts of data, new and more useful patterns start to emerge from that data, trends that might not show up in smaller data sets.

User-generated content is already being used to predict which online adverts we are most likely to click on, or to make recommendations based on our previous purchases, but more data and new types are likely to make services more personalised and tailored to our needs. “Mobility will generate all types of new data,” says Paul Bloom, Chief Technology Officer of Telecom Research at IBM. “This data will be changed into very valuable business intelligence.”

Privacy advocates may be appalled, but there is a growing tendency among people to want to share their data. Anmol Madan, CEO of Ginger.io, an MIT start-up in Cambridge, Massachusetts, that specialises in behavioural analytics, believes you don’t even need additional sensors to gather useful data. Just by monitoring the motion and location sensors in smartphones, it is already possible to build up a behavioural profile of that person’s movements, he says.

Indeed, this is precisely what Ginger.io is looking into as a means of monitoring patients with certain conditions, such as chronic depression and Crohn’s disease. By looking for changes in one’s daily routine, it is possible to flag up when someone is experiencing, say, a flare-up, and notify their doctor. It’s like a ‘check engine’ light, he says.

This is all done with the patient’s permission of course, but it is carried out passively, with the data collected automatically in the background. In time, such automated data collection is likely to find its way into other non-medical forms of social media. For example, Foursquare, a popular location-based social media platform, currently lets users ‘check in’ at different venues by selecting from a list that the application has automatically detected. With more accurate GPS, this sort of task could very easily be performed automatically.

Interconnected cities

Not all data will come from us, though, says Iyad Rahwan, an associate professor of computing and information science at the Masdar Institute in the United Arab Emirates. Billions of cheap sensors will pervade our cities and environment, creating what is known as the ‘internet of things’.

“Our cars, televisions, phones, music players and book readers are already getting connected,” he says. “As infrastructure becomes more pervasive, all sorts of other things will be internet-connected, too.” This will include anything from sensing the temperature and quality of the water in our rivers and oceans, and the state of the soil in our parks and agricultural lands, to our household and industrial energy- and water-consumption patterns, he says.

In a sense, the same will be true of our social interactions. Or at least the same kind of connectivity will become the social norm, says Rahwan. “If you meet a new person, they now almost expect you to have a Facebook account, so that they can connect, maintain contact and learn more about you,” he says.

So social media will become a more integral component of our identity and social interaction, to such an extent that choosing whom to socialise with will become akin to choosing what book to read. “One’s choice of life partner may very well become heavily influenced by an algorithmic recommendation,” says Rahwan.

As unlikely as it may sound, this scenario is, in Rahwan’s view, almost inevitable. Sceptics need only recall the early 1990s to be reminded of how fast attitudes can change. Back then, the very idea of people happily surrendering details of their private lives to complete strangers, as is now practised by hundreds of millions of people through social networks such as Facebook, would have been dismissed immediately.

Accessible information

The key consideration is how we will access all this information. Mobile devices have always struggled with size, striving to find a balance between being small enough to be portable yet large enough to be useful. Augmented reality is one radical alternative to this. There are already examples where mobile phones can be used to map digital data on to real-world images, such as when you hold your phone up at the Eiffel Tower or a Rembrandt painting and digital meta-data will pop up automatically and provide you with background information about what you’re looking at.

It’s possible that this new phase of social media and networking will come from one of the existing giants such as Facebook or Twitter. It’s possible, but unlikely. History dictates that the real game-changing, innovative ideas come from the bottom up. If so, then the odds are stacked in favour of the underdog, especially if cloud computing becomes the distribution model of choice, says Bloom. “It will create new business models and will allow small and medium businesses to access capabilities that today they can’t afford,” he says.

If he’s right, it will be good news for us, because it’s making conditions easier for small companies to survive in a culture that is ripe for innovation, meaning we may well be about to enter into an explosive and exciting new technological revolution.