As I watched a small heli-drone hover over a crowd outside the Austin Convention Center at SXSW, I thought: the evolution of technology will culminate not in gadgets, or data, or surveillance, but in predicting human behavior. This is not a moral declaration, but a statement of the inevitable. Like the five stages of Elizabeth Kübler-Ross’s structure for grieving, technology is passing through five intertwined steps of evolution:
1. Hardware came first — the wheel, the horse-and-buggy, the iPhone in your pocket, the physical “thing” that most people think of when they hear the word “technology.” Hard tools are human capacity expanders, from the leather shoes that allow us to run on hard surfaces to the mobile phones that connect us to the world. But hardware is only the bottom rung of technology’s ladder.
2. Software came second — the required knowledge system, in its broadest sense, to run any hardware. This includes human minds, as a construction worker must think to wield a hammer, and the programmable electronic strings that make tablets and DVRs run.
3. Sensors are third — defined as any input that collects data to drive hardware/software outputs. You must type into a typewriter to generate a letter. The gyro in your smartphone rotates its screen, keeping it vertical. Sensors are shrinking, dropping in cost, and rising in sophistication. Today, the Xbox can sense your location, motion and even heartbeat from across the room to run a video game. The Nest thermostat knows when you leave the home. Your iPhone dims the screen when you hold it close to your ear. Like the oblong telescreen built into Winston Smith’s 1984 wall, gadgets are watching you while you watch them, too. This has always been the case, as cars need gas pedals and steering wheels to be directed; sensors are simply, inevitably proliferating.
4. Data is next — any tool to work must input, collect, and store information to function. Note that data flows two ways, and as sensors/software/hardware scale in quantity and plummet in costs, the data that comes in from you will begin to outnumber anything that comes back out.
5. And prediction is final — because data will by necessity be used to predict behavior to make any tool more useful. People today — even tech leaders — often misunderstand technology to focus on gadgets or applications or data, which are “cool” and “new,” vs. the predictive knowledge all of these new systems combined will generate.
Because we hunger for our tools to provide more utility, and prediction is the fastest way for us to get what we want, prediction is where all of technology must lead.
How are observations proliferating?
On the SXSW stage, tech-trend observer Robert Scoble addressed how Google Glass, the little eyeglass gizmo with a screen/computer embedded on one side, is really a collection of sensors that observe you. “Glass,” he said, “is one of those products that you know is the future … and the real privacy problem is it is a sensor platform. It will know whether I’m sober or drunk. Will that data get sent to my employer, my insurance company, my wife? As these technologies shrink and disappear into our eyeglasses, our computer systems, Google will be watching what we think. And it is mind-blowing to think about the privacy problems of that.”
Each day, people are already exposed to millions of interception points. At another SXSW presentation on UX Design, Alfred Lui of Seer Labs noted that the average U.S. consumer is interrupted 80 times a day by technology; by default, each system interruption may be backed by scores of hidden data observations. While designers focus on how to make the data around each technology bit helpful — “just being able to collect data does not make you useful,” Lui said, “you need to give data a purpose” — those growing interaction touch points create numerous ways any individual can be observed.
Why will all these observations morph into predictions?
Because forecasting action may be the highest utility of societal interaction. Governments (despite Snowden’s protestations and the associated debate around them) use data mining to predict and prevent terrorist threats, a societal benefit. 23andme, a genetics company that can test your profile based on a simple bit of saliva, is able to predict a person’s propensity to medical disease. The vendor floor at SXSW included headsup virtual-reality eyeglasses that monitor eye movements and a billboard display that tracked whether people walking by were men or women, young or old. Each of these inputs is used in its own way to monitor human behavior and predict something — a terror conspiracy, a health risk, what you will see, what digital ad you should be served. And marketers, the driving force that subsidizes almost all of today’s entertainment for consumers, will rush to collect new data threads that improve predictions that enable customized advertising matching desire with sale.
The sensors that watch us are shrinking and being built into every object. We will use these new gadgets to sense data that predicts our future. We will trade privacy for utility, if we find the exchange beneficial. As the great Kevin Kelly wrote in “What Technology Wants,” “progress is only half real. That is, material advances do occur, but they don’t mean very much. Only intangibles like meaningful happiness count.” In 5 years, your email will draft customized auto-replies in your own tone of voice, predicting what you would write when you’re out of the office based on your past emails. (Google has a patent on this.) In 15 years, you’ll get into a self-driving car that already knows where you want to go based on your daily habits. In 25 years, you may fall in love with a digital avatar that anticipates your every need.
Data exists to be observed; observations exist to form predictions; predictions are made because they improve happiness. Predictions are coming. It’s not an ethical debate. It’s an unstoppable technological evolution. We just can’t help ourselves.