A few nights ago I was listening to BBC World Service Radio. Broadcast from the UK, of course. And then relayed to me through a satellite radio service. This was while driving a Korean-made car through Nashville, heart of the bible belt, on my way to a Zen Buddhist service inherited from Japanese traditions.
Afterwards I joined a few friends at a locally-owned eatery, had pita bread and hummus (both of Middle Eastern origin), and an oatmeal stout from a North Carolina brewery. Oatmeal stouts are a style of beer that, like the BBC, originate from the UK. Only a good bit further back in time.
On the drive home I was able to queue up, on demand, Brian Eno’s Ambient 1: Music for Airports, originally released in 1978. This took no more effort than finding music released last year or last month.
Finally, once home I was able to pull up the most recent images beamed back by the Curiosity Rover, from the surface of another planet.
None of this was due to any great effort on my part. It was possible simply because I am alive now, at this time.
We have increasingly connected, immediate-access, globally-sourced lives. There has been much critique and concern over the effect this is having in terms of quality-of-life, attention spans, competition for resources, etc. Where this is ultimately taking us remains to be seen. But in the moments when we can stop and notice how amazing it is, a feeling of ‘wow’ becomes undeniable. We are living in the future.
A team of British researchers has produced an algorithm that can analyze a cell phone’s location data and predict where you’ll be in 24 hours. To an accuracy of 20 meters. That may not tell them which chair you’ll sit in, but it’s enough for them to know that you’ll be at your favorite locally-sourced burger joint before you even know you’re going there. From the article on Slate:
That’s far more accurate than past studies that have tried to predict people’s movements. Studies have shown that most people follow fairly consistent patterns over time, but traditional prediction algorithms have no way of accounting for breaks in the routine.
The researchers solved that problem by combining tracking data from individual participants’ phones with tracking data from their friends—i.e., other people in their mobile phonebooks. By looking at how an individual’s movements correlate with those of people they know, the team’s algorithm is able to guess when she might be headed, say, downtown for a show on a Sunday afternoon rather than staying uptown for lunch as usual.
There are of course the usual privacy concerns, and the easily-imagined potential interest that law enforcement would have in employing such an algorithm as a tool. Yet there are significant practical limits involved; having to pull data not just from your phone but from those of your friends in order to provide accurate results. And as the article points out, justifying tracking specific individuals and their friends to find out where someone will be has significant ethical and legal challenges. To go down that road gives us a real-life Minority Report, and turns our justice system on its head.
What is more interesting, to both myself and the researchers, is that this is even possible. Despite the fact that humans, in mathematical terms, are walking irrational numbers, we are apparently more predictable than we realize.
But this is not that surprising if I stop and think about my own activities. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out my routine- work, home, and the smattering of places that Lynn and I like to go for dinner or other entertainment. You could assemble a very accurate pool of guesses from Facebook updates and her Foursquare posts. We pretty much put it all out there anyway.
Online privacy continues to be a hot topic, legally and technologically. And that’s one way that humans continue to be quite unpredictable. We are fine with sharing information online… except when we’re not. Google guessed at where the line is drawn with their first social networking experiment (Google Buzz) and got it quite wrong. Walt Whitman had no idea how right he would be- “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.”
In the meantime, I’m wishing my phone would tell me if I’m going somewhere unexpected 24 hours in advance, so I could dress for it…