Spooky action at a personal distance

Big Data Evangelist, IBM


The ultimate empowerment tool—in the most literal sense of that term—is the remote control. If we can direct the behavior of persons, places and things to suit our needs, if not whims, we become virtual masters of our universe.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Unless we’ve amassed dictatorial power over some major nation, the most that any of us can control directly is our personal environment. In the consumer arena, remotes have traditionally existed to control the appliances that you’ve acquired and arranged around your living space. I’m using the term “appliance” in the loosest sense, recognizing that your car probably responds to the special frequency of your keyless remote.

If your current remotes are anything like mine, they only control your appliances when you manually tell them to do so—by pressing keys, touching screens, selecting on-screen settings and the like. In a sense, this is all just a form of programming, in which explicit, repeatable instructions must be specified by human beings in a machine-executable format. In order for the remote to do what you wish it to do, you must know the desired outcome and specify it unambiguously. If you’re not quite sure what you want, or if you happen to be literally unconscious when you need to communicate your intentions to your remote control, you’re just plain out of luck.

Big data analytics is getting positively spooky in its ability to infer our intentions in real time, and in the context of our environments. Data is a truly a lever for making things happen in the real world, and data-driven insights are a leverage multiplier. Quantified self (QS) focuses on leveraging hyperpersonal data to gain insights relevant to our health, fitness, diet and general quality of life. To the extent that you use QS-derived insights to control how you conduct your life and to achieve the right results, all power to you. But what if QS-driven data insights could directly instruct, via the Internet of Things (IoT), all your possessions to serve your needs, no matter where those possessions happen to be or in what state your mind and body happen to be at the present time?

In this new era, in which voice inputs, gestural interfaces and data-driven inferences drive remote actions in your personal QS/IoT domain, the remote control is becoming more of a general purpose infrastructure and less of a concrete gadget that you can lose under the sofa cushions. Almost two years ago, I blogged on QS/IoT’s growing adoption. At that time, I just skirted the edge of this trend. Nevertheless, what I said then bears repeating, in light of more recent innovations in commercial QS/IoT technologies: “People everywhere are incorporating sensor-bearing mobile devices into their lives: carrying and wearing them around, installing them in their cars and houses, buying products that embed them and even having them implanted in their bodies…People realize they can continuously monitor their entire personal environment on every level and, with the right analytics, use what they find to tweak and tune every aspect of their existence to their satisfaction.”

Recently, I came across a great article that gives this new paradigm an excellent name: the “Internet of Self.” Author Mike Elgan reports on innovations displayed at CES2015 that leverage QS-sourced personal data to control personal IoT devices. He hits the nail on the head with this “out-of-body” analogy: “It will be as if your house, car and office will be extensions of your physical body, with appliances and objects responding to your physical state and looking out for you.”

What I noticed is that many of the examples he gives concern the actions that your personal IoT equipped possessions take to adjust to your level of consciousness, or, at the very least, to the fact that your attentions are elsewhere:

  • A car that pulls over and parks when you're tired
  • Home lighting, entertainment, HVAC, phones and other systems that adjust their operation to the fact that you’re asleep or awake
  • A light bulb that can simulate a sunrise when your body is ready to wake up
  • A thermostat that adjusts itself to your comfort level
  • An entertainment system that tunes the lights and music to your stress level
  • A 911-callout feature triggered by your sudden onset of panic
  • A home security camera that unlocks the door and turns on the lights when it recognizes that it’s you approaching

It doesn’t take a great imaginative leap to see that the “Internet of Self” can be a life-saving utility when, for example, you’re lying unconscious or have suffered a heart attack, stroke or epileptic seizure that requires that an ambulance be dispatched ASAP.

And at the risk of being morbid, “Internet of Self” can be a tool of justice when, say, you’ve just been murdered and your QS, sensing that you’re gone and that human-perpetrated violence may to blame, immediately uploads all its recently acquired data, including any bodycam shots, to the authorities, along with guidance about who the “persons of interest” may be. This would be an example of your QS metaphorically “taking the stand” to testify against your killer in your eternal absence.

This relates to one of my recent blogs about the intersection of interest graphs with the IoT. In the piece, I speculated on how your personal things might operate semi-autonomously from you, but always serving your ultimate interests. I asked whether it would it be prudent to allow things (in the hardware sense) to autonomously formulate, without being explicitly programmed, their own adaptive strategies for identifying which things (in the subject-matter sense) might be of greatest interest to you.

In this sense, the QS-driven “Internet of Self” would serve as a personal assistant whose job is, in part, to serendipitously discover other entities that might be of interest to you, their owner and user. Your QS’ “interest graph” would power a recommendation engine of sorts, clueing you in to data, correlations, paths, places and options you hadn’t previously considered, but which might be relevant to your health, safety and security.

This is essentially an “Internet of Self” scenario in which your QS gadgets know what’s “good for you” when even you’re not currently conscious of that fact, even though you may be fully conscious in the living and breathing sense of that term.