Evan Soltas
Mar 12, 2012

A Brave New World

Cue the age of ubiquitous personal analytics.

Tyler Cowen posted a link to a new entry on Stephen Wolfram's blog which is simply amazing -- Wolfram's post is entitled "The Personal Analytics of My Life," and he does not disappoint. The man has kept track of every email, every keystroke on his computer, every telephone call, and every step he's taken for years.

I think Wolfram will go down as one of the most enigmatic geniuses of our time. I don't think anyone doubts the magnitude of his contribution -- his program Mathematica is vitally important to research, Wolfram|Alpha (although not terribly popular) could be important to next-generation search engines in the way that the NeXT computer was in its respective field, and he apparently has a body of scientific research on which I am totally unqualified to comment.

Wolfram will add another remarkable accomplishment to his list if personal analytics become more than the playthings for prodigies like him and this man, featured in The New York Times, who produces "annual reports" which have the elegance of the best graphic design out there and the detail of an investment prospectus.

Given Moore's Law and the price of modern health care, my sense is that the developed world is hurtling into an age where personal analytics are ubiquitous, as does Ezra Klein of The Washington Post's "Wonkbook" blog:

On Friday, at MIT, I spoke with a researcher who’s working on wearable diagnostic devices. The sorts of things you can clip onto your ear, or wear on your wrist, and stream data on your pulse, blood pressure, blood oxygenation, etc, into your phone, which can then send the information to a central server for analysis. The Jawbone Up and the Nike+ Fueland and the FitBit Ultra are all very early examples of these kinds of products.

”What’s the chance that, in 25 years, I and everyone I know will be wearing something that’s constantly feeding an enormous stream of physical data to some cloud-like server farm for constant analysis?” I asked him.

“99 percent,” he replied. “And the 1 percent is that the Earth gets hit by an asteroid before then.”

To some extent, this trend is already on the march. In most cases, though, the data is accumulated and analyzed for third-party profit. Social networks are free because they analyze your data to sell closely relevant advertisements. Retail chains collect your purchase information; Google indexes your emails and searches. More and more of our activities create information in formal systems (like emails, credit card purchases, etc.) as opposed to informal systems (face-to-face communication, cash purchases, etc.), and this is rapidly creating huge pools of data which can now be exploited for profit. We see an opposite trend, too, with sites like Mint.com and Google Health (the latter discontinued) empowering individuals to exploit their own datasets for personal gain.

Where all of this will head -- the data accumulated for us, employed for our ends, the ends of other parties, such as firms looking to sell us things, and the ends of larger entities, such as city planners looking to improve quality of life, etc. -- is that human existence becomes more of an economics-style utility optimization problem than it ever was before. We are gaining measurement tools, in effect, for more and more of the key inputs to this function -- nutrition and health, commute times and happiness, and so forth.

In two fascinating posts (1, 2), the British version of Wired looked into the ability of individuals to use personal analytics for their own gain with the help of experts. One such expert, an Adriana Lukas, expects the trends to come to a head in "two to five years," which doesn't sound unreasonable to me. That makes Wolfram and Felton the pioneers of a major change in how we run our lives.

I'd be remiss not to point out the obvious potential for a massive industry to emerge here. Sometimes we forget that technology, as an engine of productivity, does not only eliminate the need for labor in certain production processes but also creates new production opportunities entirely.

The flood of data will not stop; this implies that we're going to need more data storage, first of all, but also that managing the raw storage is going to be a challenge for designers of servers and search algorithm programmers. Then we'll need programs which can source and unify all of the diverse strains of data, programs which can figure out what is important, draw comparisons and inferences, and come to conclusions. The next step is in taking this raw analysis and organizing it into something which is comprehensible to humans, and which humans can act upon -- this is the stage that is most likely to require, in my mind, a retail-type presence with humans who are counselors on nutrition, exercise, daily living routines, etc.

It is a truly astonishing feeling, knowing what the future is going to look like, and just how close it is to the present.