Is this where artificial intelligence (AI) is headed? A set of insanely sophisticated algorithms which attempt to replicate and predict the way we think so that we will buy more stuff, enabling Google and Twitter and others to monetize all the free gee-whiz cyber cool tools we use all the time? In Orwell’s book 1984 (referenced by many but I think actually read by few) “Big Brother” was the see-all, know-all keeper of order and was intended to represent a not-so benign government presence in peoples’ everyday lives. In our increasingly digital age, I think the bigger threat to our autonomy and admittedly inefficient freedom of choice is not Big Brother but “Big Data,” all those facts and files and bits and bytes and datafarms which create a picture of who we are and what our preferences, patterns and habits are (think clicks).
Let’s continue. You go to the shopping center and instead of being accosted by panhandlers, you are accosted by clerks and merchants coming out of the stores to greet you by name because your buzzing and beeping cell phone (“Stop here!”) has told them you are steps away from the store and they are plugged into “Big Data” and have targeted a sale on two items just for you because they know your buying history and have anticipated your need. That’s targeted marketing. Full page ads in newspapers seem so inefficient, so impersonal. So last century. In fact, in the interview CEO Schmidt remarks that the “serendipity” of people finding interesting things in newspapers can be calculated now. “We can actually produce it electronically,” he said.
Eric Schmidt and Mark Zuckerman and all the other big-brained cyber-thought-leader rock-stars see a technology enabled future which is full of possibilities and they probably have a hard time remembering a time when they were not electronically connected and networked and tethered. And those life experiences help define their assumptions and values and thankfully, dialogue about assumptions and values and what-ifs is happening more and more among the digerati because of the many concerns about privacy.
Google search (and the others) is simple. MapQuest is simple. LinkedIn is simple. I use them. But where is the tipping point between convenience and intrusion? Between access and excess? Between technological can-do and technological should-do? At least for the near future, I don’t want Google or any other company wanting to be my intimate cyber-buddy and telling me (or even suggesting to me) what I should be doing next. HAL, no.
Mike Hoban is a senior consultant for a global talent management consulting firm and can be contacted at email@example.com.