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The jogger's dilemma

18-09-2019 door Peter Rakers 4 reacties
(Republished from the IMEC Newsletter: What you did last summer)

NYC, September 7, 2019

I clicked on the ‘start’ button of my Fitbit and kicked off my run at the corner of 8th Ave and 48th St. After a week of full summer, it didn't cool off anymore and at 07 am, the Big Apple welcomed me with a nice 25°C/77°F. The all-time NYC band Steely Dan kept me company with ‘Peg’ and I approached Central Park from the South-west side. I ran clockwise into West Drive and entered joggers' paradise for the first time. I immediately spotted the runners' highway neatly next the cyclist lane, both indicating up and down in order to avoid collisions. My auto-pilot switched on and I took my place into the jogger's lane. After a few minutes, it struck me how easy my decision was to follow this predetermined path. Was it that obvious to meekly follow the other runners? Why wouldn't I choose for the nicer scenery around the big lake and continue down the more challenging middle part of the park? And so I did, but something popped into my head: are human beings that predictable?


It was not a surprise, that question is regularly on my mind anyway. As a foresight practitioner, you know you can't 'own' the future but only prepare for it. It remains an art but then again, the sci-fi author Isaac Asimov described it already in the early fifties as a (fictitious) science called psychohistory. Then again, today’s data science on human behavior - I call it 'behavibility' - makes it so tempting to answer 'yes' to the former question. Yes, human beings are predictable but there's a catch: behavibility works on two levels. As individuals and as a collective, we show elements of predictability but not on the same features. As an individual, I make clear choices where to shop, what to buy and how much to pay for it. Although using a short list, I take these decisions in a slit second according circumstances. I guess most of us do. With a random collective of people, no behavibility pattern would emerge. We would shop all over the place and more data are needed on our individual choices. On the other hand, already in 2009, Eric Gilbert and Karrie Karahalios showed correlations between people that worry (a high Anxiety Index), captured via 20 million LiveJournal posts and a (modest) drop of the S&P 500 soon after(*). Anyway, it proves - again - that economy is more emotion than science but as a collective, our joined mental models apparently have an influence on Wall Street's hotshots. As an individual, I wouldn’t have any bull or bear impact on the stock market whatsoever. Only a few Buffett’s really can.


While digital giants like Alphabet (Google), Alibaba, Apple and Amazon continue to conquer the universe, behavibility became a total new ball game. In my book, I call these companies the 4Aces. Big Data Analytics offer the possibility to join the two levels: out of collective behavior comes individual knowledge, and out of many individual choices, the mass reveals itself. It's all about the numbers and the magic is in the crunching. As we leave digital traces of things we do, like, buy or try, the massive data storage opens an unseen scale of opportunities to predict and, a bit scary, to prescribe our individual behavior. The more we feed our digital copy, the more transparent we get for these marketing giants. I always wonder if I'm really primed in my shopping behavior by discrete messages I might get along the way. Will I ever know? We don't have to shout 'global manipulation conspiracy theory !' right-away, but it's a fact that only very few have access to the data. All others will have to pay for bits and pieces of it, only reinforcing the vicious circle. Traditionally, with every force comes a counterforce, so it's only a matter of time before we see how people react on this freedom fallacy. Meanwhile, a first obvious improvement would be stopping those frantic city trips, clothes, jewelry and diverse electro-apparatus following us on Facebook or YouTube once we looked at them and especially, after we finally bought them. It's no cookie to see my wife's final choice of shoes on every site I open. So I kindly ask Larry, Tim and Mark to put it on the priority list of their advertisers. OK, I bought it, so don't offer it to me again!


Suggestions to travel to NYC will stay close to me for the next months but at least, it's a nice alternative for women's shoes. "And Peter, I hear you ask, how predictable were you at NYC?" Well, pretty much, if I look back. I fell for every tourist trap the city had in store for me and enjoyed every minute of it. From the demure witness at Ground Zero Memorial to the hyperkinetic paparazzo at Top of the Rocks. For more details, I refer you to Larry, Daniel, Tim and Jeff. Keep your money ready.

(*) Eric Gilbert and Karrie Karahalios:"Widespread Worry and the Stock Market" Department of Computer Science, University of Illinois, 2009.

Peter Rakers is auteur van het boek [2replynoreply] in samenwerking met prof. dr. Sarah Baatout van het SCK•CEN, het Belgisch Studiecentrum voor Kernenergie in Mol. In het dagelijkse leven is hij de netwerk manager van een Digital Innovation Hub genaamd Smart Digital Farming, een initiatief dat wordt ondersteund door de Vlaamse overheid (VLAIO). Het verhaal van [2replynoreply] is fictie, maar start met concrete feiten uit vier wetenschappelijke domeinen:
Wiskunde: de toepassing van artificiële intelligentie en machine learning om menselijk gedrag in kaart te brengen en … te sturen;
Genetica: de toepassing de gentechnologie CRISPR/CAS9 op het menselijk DNA;
Radiobiologie: de effecten van straling en licht op de levende cel;
Ruimtevaart: de technologie om de mens als ruimtereiziger te laten overleven.

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