Devices invading our bodies may sound frightening, but not to those who depend upon them to keep their blood sugars steady and their hearts beating. Still, just as surely as RFID tags used to pay road tolls and the GPS on our smart phones have provided records of our travels to third parties (like advertisers and governments), our medical data will be stored beyond our reach, aggregated, and possibly commoditized.
Some of this will benefit us, as subtle patterns across populations lead to better diagnosis of diseases and tracking of epidemics and environmental concerns. But much will be lost in terms of privacy and self-determination. Here are a few thoughts on what might be possible as sensors and actuators move from individual use to community applications.
Already, new data sources and new approaches to datamining reveal valuable information. Political operatives discover new taxonomies of voters and work to gain power and funding by attracting, provoking, and mobilizing them with tailored messages. Retailers look for changes that cue them to selectively market to us in the right place at the right time. Supply chains are smoothed and optimized as subtle aspects of demand, inventories, and delivery are picked out of mountains of information. Traffic is regulated in large cities as better understanding of the motivations, needs, and problems of drivers emerges.
As sensors provide more and more data from our bodies and the data is correlated and mined, with longitudinal components, environmental factors, and demographics worked in, we will gain a window into new taxonomies of health, disability, and potential. Recommendations will be made base on bits of data seen across large numbers of people who resemble us in ways that might be obvious. We should be able to come to the kind of conclusions that normally take decades – smoking is bad for you, high cholesterol levels correlate with heart disease – much more rapidly. This can improve our health and well-being, however, there are several concerns.
More data may be less. In Blink, Malcolm Gladwell describes how too much data can cause physicians to make the wrong decisions. Measuring (and paying attention to) what matters is ultimately better for us.
Illusions of control. Knowing more is not the same thing as being wise. In fact, it can lead to hubris. It is when we think we have the complete picture that the unexpected blindsides us.
Bright and shiny. Similarly, we can be attracted disproportionately to what is new and different and ascribe magical powers to it. (Look, for instance, at the application of radium to everything soon after its discovery.)
Nonsense enabled. It seems like whenever people have come up with a means to classify others, they have found their way to bigotry and imagined difference. Race, religion, ethnicity, and culture have been used to cause dissension. Measuring craniums had a vogue. Today, blood types are thought to be predictive of “personality, temperament and compatibility” by some in Japan, and have become the cause of bullying and job discrimination. One can only imagine how the discovery of different categories of something like metabolism might lead to a pseudoscience of prejudice.
Having nothing to hide. Today, employers carefully review the Internet identities of potential employees and, sometimes, employees. In a sense, these are voluntary disclosures, but the line between voluntary and compulsory, between private and public, keeps shifting. The inducement of lower prices leads people to share their purchasing information via loyalty cards. People install tracking devices in their cars (revealing behaviors such as speeding) so they can get lower insurance rates. And, whether you like it or not, IBM is categorizing personalities based on tweets.
Will sharing your medical information become obligatory, akin to getting a vaccination and drug testing? What will our social responsibility be once the potential for such data collection is realized? And will actuators come to play in this social use of medical data? Could, for instance, cars refuse to start for us if our blood level alcohol levels exceeded a certain number? Would television programs be made unavailable to us if they led to depressive incidents in people with our DNA?
Data becomes destiny. In the worst of cases, our lives and freedom could be restricted based on what is deemed to be good for us and good for society. It is easy to imagine tracking systems that identify socially valuable potential in citizens (especially children) and channel them into developing these talents through nutrition, experience, education, and friendships with little input from the individual. Needless to say, they could also be directed away from anything that might lead to whatever is deemed to be threatening to the society. And, of course, the ultimate actuator could be an off switch.
The trick, as our bodies become riddled with devices and especially as these move from life-saving to life-enhancing, will be to preserve our humanity even as we are merged into the Internet of Things.