The future may be powered by data, but it must be piloted by humans


Of the six most valuable companies in the world, five are tech firms, whose worth is embodied less in physical assets than in intellectual property and customer data.

Apple and Microsoft provide the tools to connect people, and to collect and process data. Google, Facebook and Amazon provide services, and in return accumulate more data about each customer than has ever been possible before.

In seventh place trails Exxon Mobil, an illustration of the well-worn assertion that data is the new oil to fuel the next industrial revolution.

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If data is the new oil, what is the equivalent of the internal combustion engine, that turned fossil fuels from a cleaner fluid for oil lamps to a world-changing energy source for cars, tractors and aeroplanes?

Tim Estes, founder of “cognitive computing” company Digital Reasoning, told me it the answer is artificial intelligence (AI), which will release the potential of data to serve humanity.

Whatever your field, whatever your problem, the solutions offered will include data or AI, usually together.

Rising NHS costs? Wearable monitors can predict health problems and even nudge the population towards healthier lifestyles.

Shortage of workers with the necessary skills? Get robots instead.

Increasing demand for electricity, while energy supplies tighten? Use blockchain-controlled microgrids to trade “nega-watts” (otherwise known as switching things off).

I’ve seen a lot of these new technologies in development – or in action – and I’m often impressed by the human ingenuity at work.

I have held in my hand a prototype sensor that could sit in my stomach, monitor my vital signs, and administer drugs – without my even being aware of it.

I have ridden in a self-driving car, conversed with a robot nursing assistant, and let a data-driven algorithm analyse my personality.

And if you asked me to put money on which ones will be huge in 30 years’ time, I have some well-informed hunches.

Ingestible medical devices? Yes. They’d have to be smaller than the thumb-sized monster I encountered at MIT, but that’s a minor engineering issue. Being able to monitor and medicate patients remotely will save doctors time and patients visits to the clinic. Who else gets to see my data is another question, of course.

Self-driving cars? Nope. Driver-assistive technology, yes: self-parking and motorway auto-pilot functions are already creeping in, and will soon become industry standard.

But before we have a fully autonomous vehicle that can safely share South London’s roads with human drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians, I predict self-flying cars overhead. There are fewer obstacles in the sky, and a third dimension in which to avoid collisions.

Service robots? Quite possibly. The capacity of machines to interact with us in our own natural language is improving rapidly, and developers now have their sights set on analysing our emotional as well as verbal responses. How quickly they take over human roles depends more on social, economic and political factors. Singapore, a wealthy city-state with a shortage of labour and a population reluctant to import workers from abroad, is embracing robots in all sectors. Britain may not.

But if you asked me which of these technologies is going to change our future most, I’d say you’re asking the wrong question.

Take democracy, for example.

Has the ability to link together many sets of data on voters, including their behaviour and preferences, changed the way political campaigning happens? Undoubtedly. Have social media platforms enabled this new campaigning technique, in ways their designers didn’t foresee? Yes. Should we pay attention? Very much so.

But the question we should ask is not how has political campaigning changed, but why? To what problem is all this voter data, turned into micro-targeted campaigning, seen as the solution? How did politics become closer to selling soap than exchanging ideas?

Technology opens up possibilities, but we still have choices to make. We can use data and AI to move limited electricity resources around a smart grid, and trade demand reduction. But with different goals, we could use technology to, for example, speed up the development of nuclear fusion. Then we could provide cleaner, cheaper, more plentiful electricity to anyone who wants it.

Is the future data-driven? Yes, in the sense that a car may be petrol-driven, or driven by electricity. Estes thinks the data-powered engine of AI is still at the propeller aeroplane stage, and I agree. We’re just starting to discover what we could do with big data and AI. Wait till we get the AI equivalent of the jet engine or interplanetary rocket.

But is it data-driven in the sense that I drive a car, or a pilot drives a plane? No. Because however much the technology takes the strain, cognitive as well as physical, however well the autopilot can compensate for lapses of attention or energy, it makes no judgment about the destination. And that’s as it should be.

The future may be powered by data, but it must be piloted by humans.

Timandra Harkness is speaking on AI, data and technology at the Battle of Ideas this weekend.

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