Skip to main content
Who Controls the Digital You?

Humanity is not easy to define or identify. For example, our DNA is roughly 99% similar to the DNA of chimps. Our DNA is even more similar to our extinct Neanderthal cousins.

According to researchers at Oxford University, advanced planning and decision making are the uniquely human characteristics. The researchers believe these cognitive abilities are unlike anything in the brains of our closest relatives.

If that is true, then is it possible to create a mathematical model of “humanity”? Is it possible to gather enough data about human decision making to create reliable models that can predict the decisions we will make?

On a macro level, the answer is clearly yes. There are abundant examples.

For decades, data scientists have been able to model consumer credit risk with remarkable predictive power. However, those models don’t predict whether you will default on a loan. They provide the odds you will default on your loan. The models can’t analyze your thoughts; they compare your credit history with those of thousands, even millions of other people. Marketers use similar models to predict what you will buy.

Similarly, data scientists have become very good at predicting which candidates will win elections. This is not done by predicting the votes of each individual voter, but rather by predicting overall vote totals based on numerous bits of data (e.g., opinion polls, economic conditions).

Predictive models like these are becoming much more widely used. Now, the rise of Big Data presents us with the tantalizing proposition that we will soon be able to analyze enough information about individuals to accurately predict what you will do next.

Virtual models of objects already exist. The so-called “Internet of Things” refers to the vast number of objects and devices that exude data about their usage, location and other factors.

You also exude data. It spills from you every time you go online, use your phone, make a purchase, even when you watch TV. All this data is being fed into models to create a digital you that exists in what I call the “Internet of People” — the growing network of models describing what people are doing, and are likely to do.

This digital you is a mathematical construct that is becoming more and more important as companies and even governments study the way you behave in order to make better decisions about you. No one can yet model the way you think, but we are getting better and better predictions of how you will behave.

In short, while we can’t yet model the way you make decisions – the essence of humanity —we are increasingly able to model the next best thing: the decisions you will make.

This phenomenon is behind raging debates about whether a given application of data or analytics is acceptable. People are becoming much more aware that they are being tracked and analyzed, and that mathematical models are responsible for more and more decisions about them. This is raising ethical and even legal questions.

Who makes sure these models are accurate? Will there be legal consequences for flawed models that adversely affect individuals? How can someone fix the data — or even the model — to make it more accurate? And even if it is accurate, who wins and who loses when our digital selves are driving so many decisions about us?

These questions need to be asked. We need to debate the way our increasingly digitized society will work in order to ensure it provides the maximum benefits for people, businesses and society.

The Internet of People is relatively new, and as it grows we will need to continually debate and revise our shared agreements for how analytics about people work and can be used. We can’t stop the data from flowing and being modelled. We can’t stop our digital selves from being created and studied. But we will want to stop them from being manipulated and exploited.

I plan to discuss this topic more. It seems to me it’s one of the pressing issues of our time. Big Data analytics is raising questions about the very essence of our humanity. The big question is: How can we digitize our identity without losing it?

related posts