Photo: DARPA (public domain, colour modified)

The Approaching Data Singularity

We could soon be able to quantify ourselves with enough data, in enough detail, that we may not even need to exist at all.

Since our prehistoric ancestors picked up their first sharp rock, we’ve turned to technology to help us solve life’s challenges. As we got smarter, we evolved the technology of language, which let us express, explore and record our knowledge together as a species. But to solve the mysteries of measurement and computation, we needed to encode our reality in a more concrete and discrete abstraction — mathematics. In today’s digital world, this takes the form of big data.

In 2013, it was estimated that 90% of the world’s data was generated in the preceding two years. Our technology for capturing, storing and processing all this data has also advanced exponentially. We have ‘clouds’ of powerful computers all connected to one other which are being flooded daily with bits and bytes about, well, everything.

Advertisers are tracking every click (and tap) we make; what time of day it was; how long we looked at each page or read an article. Even innocuous BuzzFeed quizzes are socially engineering our personal details out of us. But we don’t have to be tricked into giving away our details. We’re now feeding this data deluge by choice.

Smartphones have enabled us to digitally document our lives.
Photo: Jhaymesisviphotography via Flickr

With the explosive growth in mobile messaging apps, we’re moving our micro-communications online. We’re tweeting, Instagramming and Snapchatting our lives in forensic detail. And more recently, the fitness tracking and quantified self movements have really taken off. But beyond the utility of these apps and devices, what do we do with all this data?

Well, we now have so much data that we don’t really know what to do with it. It has spawned a new subset of mathematics called big data science, charged with dredging up any nuggets of wisdom from the depths of this binary soup. The current attitude towards big data is ‘capture first; process later’ but this could have disturbing consequences for our futures.

An ethical debate is raging over who gets access to this data and what they can use it for. It’s infused with the complexities of privacy, security, consent and control. It seems we’re OK with companies drilling deep into our data veins as long as we get something out of it. This might be a cool, benign, and usually free service which lets us discover, through data, a new insight into ourselves.

Health insurance providers have jumped straight onto the fitness tracking bandwagon by ‘gamifying’ their premiums. For example, customers who can prove, through GPS tracking data, that they’ve been to the gym can win cash bonuses. But what if your fitness data stream wasn’t so favourable?

In 2012, The Economist warned consumers to be careful what they purchasenow on their EFTPOS cards because the digital shadow of their financial history could one day come back to haunt them. What if, say 20 years from now, health insurers denied you a premium based on financial records showing you bought fast food once a week, and your groceries were also full of junk food?

You could wake up to find a replica of your datastream tearing up a hurricane of digital destruction, leaving a trail that leads right back to you.

It raises a deeply existential question about the nature of who we are. If we can be reduced to a collection of ones and zeroes, we may soon need a Digital Bill of Rights to ensure that ‘all men are created equal in the eyes of the cloud’. Data was supposed to be a tool we invented to help solve our life’s problems, not create new ways to dismantle equality.

In the ‘data singularity’ of tomorrow’s Digital Dystopia, authentic data streams will be stolen, hacked, fabricated, bought and sold on a ‘big data black market’. You could wake up one day to find a replica of your datastream has been roaming free on the internet, tearing up a hurricane of digital destruction, and leaving a perfectly correlated and cohesive data trail in its wake. A trail that leads right back to you.

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