You are currently browsing the tag archive for the ‘technology’ tag.

So far, social media seems to have a lot of roar, but very little teeth when it comes to facilitating social change.  Users of services like Twitter and Facebook seem more interested (sometimes compulsively) in entertainment, ‘branding’ & connecting with friends than about initiating positive social change. The always-insightful Venessa Miemis (@venessamiemis) hit the nail on the head in the comments to her blog post What is Social Media? [the 2010 edition] when she said:

Does all this online talking matter if nothing comes of it in the real world?

Neal Gorenflo (@gorenflo) elaborates on the potential pitfalls of conversation:

Connecting and conversing is necessary, but  again, the danger is that we get stuck in conversation. There is such a thing as being too connected. We have cognitive and time limits. Web 2.0 can overload us with messages, shrink attention spans, absorb our time, erode focus, and thus disrupt our ability as citizens to find common ground and take action together. It’s possible that through Web 2.0 we may be, as in the title of cultural critic Neil Postman’s influential book, amusing ourselves to death.

Venessa goes on to ask the big question:

How do we make something happen? What are small things we can start doing to get the hang of real coordination, collaboration, and action?

I’m all for starting with something small but nonetheless tangible – to give us something to build on and learn from.  Why not shoot first, and aim later?  The worst that can happen is we fail fast and learn from our mistakes.

With that goal in mind, I’m fascinated by an initiative by my Carnegie Mellon University colleague Priya Narasimhan (@priyacmu) to use crowdsourcing and social media to help locate, assess & repair potholes around Pittsburgh [see news story w/ video].

Pittsburghers are given three options for reporting potholes – dial 311 on their mobile phone, log it at the website, or best of all, report it using a free iPhone app called iBurgh.

The iBurgh app is cool because of it is so easy to use. Simply snap a photo of a pothole with your iPhone. The image is automatically geotagged with its location, and sent to the city’s public works department. Once  three pictures of the same pothole are logged, the city promises to repair it within five days.  Granted its not an instantaneous response, but we’ve got a lot of potholes in Pittsburgh!  The tool can also be used to report issues like needed snow removal – a big problem around here this time of year…

Pittsburgh City Council member Bill Peduto said the program makes Pittsburgh the nation’s first large city to implement a government integrated iPhone app.  He goes on to say:

“This type of technology that merges social media with democracy is going to boom within the next year.”

This is exciting for me partly because it is being done by a friend.  But more importantly, it illustrates something we saw emerging with the DARPA Red Balloon Challenge which might be called crowdsensing – using a distributed network of tech-enabled individuals to track and report on significant (and sometimes not-so-significant) events happening in their world.

Another nice example is the Twitter Earthquake Detection Program, which encourages people to report when the earth moves via Twitter or on a dedicated “Did You Feel It?” website.

I’m hopeful an even bigger and better example will happen soon in the form of a regime change in Iran, thanks in part to Twitter. As I observed recently, Twitter has given the citizens of Iran a way to tell the story of their quest for freedom to the world in real-time and in a way that engages public interest, at a time when traditional media channels have been locked out by their oppressive government.  I wish them the best of luck, and will be tracking the events on Twitter as they unfold.  When (not if) they succeed, it will be an important milestone for the emerging Global Brain.

Until then, I’m happy to start small.  Excuse me while I go report a few potholes…

We may have just witnessed an important milestone in the awakening of the web.

While this point may be controversial, I content that future exponential growth of the digital economy will eventually require getting humans out of the loop.  If computing power continues to double every 18 months in accordance with Moore’s Law,  utilizing all those cycles will eventually require computers to start talking directly to other computers, without the goal of assisting, informing or entertaining human beings.

Why? Because human population is virtually flat and limits to human cognition mean there is only so much digital content people can effectively digest.

According to a recent University of California study,  the average US citizen consumes an estimated 34Gb of data daily, mostly in the form of  TV & video games. Collectively, American households consumed 3.6 zettabytes of information of all kinds in 2008, the researchers estimated. While this seems like a lot and is  likely to continue growing for some time as video resolution gets higher, our appetite for bytes will inevitably flatten out, particularly if we continue to get more of our information through mobile devices.

If machine-to-machine communication will eventually need to pick up the slack in demand for the ever increasing bandwidth, how and when will it happen and what form will it take?

To some degree it is happening already. For quite some time there has been a shaky alliance between news aggregators (e.g. Google News) and machine-driven decision tools, best exemplified by automated financial trading systems.  The widely reported United Airlines incident last year showed just how risky this combination can be. For anyone who missed it, United Airlines stock plummeted from $12 to $3, losing 75% of its value over the course of a few minutes on Sept. 8th 2008, and in the process wiped out over $1B in shareholder value.

Insider trading?  Nope.

It turns out the trigger was a small mistake by a Florida newspaper that accidentally reran a story from 2002 about UAL’s bankruptcy without a date, making it appear like it was fresh news.  Within a minute, the automated scanning system of Google News, which visits more than 7,500 news sites every 15 minutes, found the story and thinking it new, added it to its breaking news stream.  An employee at Bloomberg financial news saw the story and rebroadcast it to thousands of readers, quite many of whom follow United Airlines.  Within minutes United’s stock tanked, largely as a result of automated trading programs that saw the price dropping and sold the stock to prevent additional losses.

Once the mistake was cleared up and trading resumed, UAL’s stock recovered most of the $1B it had lost, but the incident was an important lesson for the burgeoning industry of automated news scanning and financial trading. What went wrong during the United Airline incident was a combination of human error and runaway automation that both propagated and acted upon the mistake.

You could try to blame the human element of the equation since in this case without the human error of resurrecting an out-of-date story, the incident would never have happened. But Scott Moore, head of Yahoo News, hit the nail on the head when he said:

This is what happens when everything goes on autopilot and there are no human controls in place or those controls fail.

Now in what could be an important (but potentially risky) step further. we are beginning to see computers acting as both the producers and consumers of content, without a human in the loop.  In this case it is called computational journalism and it consists of content generated by computers for the express purpose of consumption by other computers.

Academics at Georgia Tech and Duke University have been speculating about computational journalism for some time. But now, the folks at Thomson Reuters, the world’s largest news agency, have made the ideas a reality with a new service they call NewsScope. A recent Wired article has a good description of NewsScope:

NewsScope is a machine-readable news service designed for financial institutions that make their money from automated, event-driven, trading. Triggered by signals detected by algorithms within vast mountains of real-time data, trading of this kind now accounts for a significant proportion of turnover in the world’s financial centres.

Reuters’ algorithms parse news stories. Then they assign “sentiment scores” to words and phrases. The company argues that its systems are able to do this “faster and more consistently than human operators”.

Millisecond by millisecond, the aim is to calculate “prevailing sentiment” surrounding specific companies, sectors, indices and markets. Untouched by human hand, these measurements of sentiment feed into the pools of raw data that trigger trading strategies.

One can easily imagine that with machines deciding what events are significant and what they mean, and other machines using that information to make important decisions, we have the makings of an information ecosystem that is free of human input or supervision. A weather report suggesting a hurricane may be heading towards central America could be interpreted by the automated news scanners as a risk to the coffee crop, causing automated commodity trading programs to cause a rise on coffee futures. Machines at coffee producing companies could see the price jump, and trigger release of stockpiled coffee beans onto the market, all without a human hand in the whole process. Machines will be making predictions and acting on them in what amounts to a fully autonomous economy.

This could be an alternative route to the Global Brain I previously envisioned as the end result of the TweetStream application.  By whichever route get there (and there are likely others yet to be identified), the emergence of a viable, worldwide, fully-automated information exchange network will represent an historic moment.  It will be the instant our machines no longer depend entirely on humans for their purpose. It will be a critical milestone in the evolution of intelligence on our planet, and a potentially very risky juncture in human history.

The development of NewsScope is appears to be an important step in that direction. We live in interesting times.

1/4/09 Update

Thomson Reuters, the developers of NewsScope, today acquired Discovery Logic, a company whose motto is “Turning Data into Knowledge”.  Among its several products, is Synapse, designed to help automate the process of technology tranfer of government-sponsored healthcare research by the NIH Office of Technology Transfer (OTT).  They describe Synapse as:

An automated system to match high-potential technologies with potential licensees. Using Synapse, OTT now uses a “market-push” approach, locating specific companies that are most likely to license a certain technology and then notifying the companies of the opportunity.

Using the same product, OTT also found it could also successfully perform “market pull,” in which OTT can identify multiple technologies in its inventory in which a company may find interest.

Apparently Reuters isn’t interested in just automating the process of generating and disseminating news, but technology as well.

Humans, like many species, are highly social creatures. The process of natural selection has instilled in us a drive to connect with other people. Those ancestors that were well connnected got support from their community and prospered, allowing them to pass on their gregariousness down to their offspring.

Facebook Addiction

With the advent of modern communication technology we’ve developed more and more effective ways to ‘scratch the itch’ to connect with others at greater speeds and distances. Social networks like Facebook and Twitter are the latest in the line of personal connectivity technology.

While these services can provide much value by allowing people to link with friends, ideas and events in new ways, they are not without a dark side.  As their popularity has mushroomed, it has become increasingly apparently that these services can be addictive, and this tendency is especially prevalent among youth of today, for whom fitting into the social fabric has always seemed  critically important.

This New York Times article, “Driven to Distraction, Some Teenagers Unfriend Facebook” documents some of the troubles teenagers are having with Facebook addiction, and managing their compulsion to connect with their social network. Psychology Professor  Walter Mischel of Columbia University says:

Facebook is the marshmallow for these teenagers

referring to the treat young kids found irresistible in his now famous series of experiments probing how young children cope with, and often succumb to, temptation.

Professor Mischel  found that kids who could not delay gratification, but instead snatched the marshmallows at the earliest opportunity, turned out to be under-achievers as adults.

So the big question seems to be:

Is the 24/7 connected culture we find ourselves embedded within today serving us, or is it driving us (and our kids) to distraction?

My guess – probably both.

One thing seems clear – Driven by our compulsion to connect, we humans are beginning to serve the global network at least as much as the global network is serving us. It remains to be seen whether the emerging collective intelligence will help steer humanity towards healthy and creative forms of social networking, or undermine the well-being of the very nodes that form it…

Update 2/03/2010: A new study in the Journal Psychopathology found a strong correlation between excessive internet activity (especially at social media sites) and depression. The study authors day:

“Our research indicates that excessive internet use is associated with depression, but what we don’t know is which comes first — are depressed people drawn to the internet or does the internet cause depression?

“What is clear, is that for a small subset of people, excessive use of the internet could be a warning signal for depressive tendencies.”

I’ve always been fascinated by organizations like the Institute For The Future and the World Future Society.  The folks at both these fine institutions sincerely want to help steer humanity towards a better future through careful foresight, and I applaud their efforts. But at the same time, I remain skeptical about the impact these types of efforts are likely to have. 

Perhaps the biggest issue is critical mass. How can organizations like these hope to be heard over the din of everyone else shouting out their own prognostications, and jockeying for people’s attention?

Beginning with the Greeks and the myth of Cassandra, history is full of fortune tellers who have sat on the sidelines and tried in vain to tell others about what lies ahead.  Their passive style has usually meant they’ve been impotent when it comes to actually bringing about (or in the case of dire predictions, preventing) the future they predict. The future is what happens when these folks are making other plans.

History has shown that they people who shape the course of human events are those who engage in the fray, and who get their hands dirty creating the future rather than simply talking about it. Think of Mahatma Gandhi, Winston Churchill, and Bill Gates.

Don’t get me wrong. I think we need people like Ray Kurzweil to show us possible futures. But it is world leaders and entrepreneurs ‘in the trenches’ who in the end have the most influence.

I wonder – in this new socially connected world that is emerging, is there a way to empower the collective intelligence to have a concrete influence, rather than just waiting for industrious individuals to take the bull by the horns and make things happen?  The upcoming attempt by iPhone users to influence AT&T’s service and policies, dubbed Operation Chokehold, might be a modest first step in this direction.

But I have something much more creative in mind.

I wonder if there is a way to connect collective intelligence, and the individuals that make it up, directly with folks in a position to help bring about the ‘next big thing’?  Here is a concrete idea. What I’d like to see is a venture capital fund that lets little guys (like me) participate. What it might do is allow the collective wisdom of lots of little guys to guide investments, and therefore help create the future of technology, rather than just talking about it and waiting passively for it to happen.

It sounds like a business plan someone must have already thought of. Maybe there is such an organization out there already. If so, can someone point me to it?

Ever feel like you're part of a big machine?

This blog is an exploration of what being part of a collective might mean for each of us as individuals, and for society.

What is it that is struggling to emerge from the convergence of people and technology?

How can each of us play a role, as a thoughtful cog in the big machine?

Dean Pomerleau


Twitter Updates