Or: How we’ll learn to stop worrying and let computers take the lead.
Had your fill of shutdown specials at DC’s finer drinking establishments? Looking for something to pass the time while you pinch pennies and let that #shutdownbeard grow?
Why not look forward to a brighter future when data’s driving more decisions, cars are driving themselves and you’ll know the perfect moment to kiss your date because your vibrating smartphone will alert you to a sudden change in his or her body temperature.
In his new book Average is Over: Powering America Beyond the Age of the Great Stagnation, George Mason University Economist Tyler Cowen examines how the growth of data gathering about everything from what’s in your refrigerator to how your nervous system is responding to a situation might change how we live a decade or more down the road.
Cowen outlined some of these possibilities in a podcast interview with Stanford economist Russ Roberts recently. One day, something like Google glass, taking data from outside sensors, might alert you when someone you're negotiating with is likely lying based on changes in his movements or body temperature, Cowen said.
That technology might also tell you the right moment to kiss your date, provided, of course, that she’s not using data blocking technology like an ice pack stowed under her shirt. Yes, they got into that too…
Your smartphone could also gather sensor data from your refrigerator to warn you off buying carrots at the grocery store, either because you already have some at home or because, whenever you do buy them, they inevitably go bad.
Cowen makes an interesting point about people’s reactions to such data-driven services. The general inclination, he said, is to begin pointing out holes in the services’ accuracy. A better measure, he said, would be to accept imperfect predictors so long as they’re at least a little bit better than an old fashioned hunch.
Roberts: But you suggest that the cultural transformation might be a little bit challenging for some of us. We might not be so willing to listen.
Cowen: I think we are all a bit reluctant to become so subservient to computers and to software programming. And those people who are not, those people who can listen yet without losing their sense of self, without losing their inner propulsion, I think that will be a highly propitious mix of character qualities to have. But I think a lot of smart people--again, they'll try to do too much themselves, like some of the lesser freestyle [chess] players, and they'll end up getting in a lot of trouble. They'll be out-competed by the wiser and more modest individuals.
Roberts: Now, most of this sounds pretty great. A lot of what you are talking about is going to make life more fun. Maybe more silly. Maybe more gadget-centric. But a lot of it is just going to be pleasant.
Cowen: Like GPS. It's mostly an advantage. It's not perfect.
Roberts: Right. Occasionally it takes you down a one-way street. Or takes you on a detour that was not necessary but somehow it thinks it is. Or roads have changed. All those things are going to happen, and as you point out, there will be a little bit of an arms race. The person who wants to lie may be wearing a bag of ice on them somewhere to keep their temperature down. Or there will be ways that their phone will chill them. Whatever. We don't know what will actually happen. There may be all kinds of interesting market forces at work in these equilibria. We don't know how it will actually pan out. But most of these things are really great. As you go by the movie theater it says: You'll like this one. Or whatever the things that are there.
Cowen: There's something oppressive about it. Because all the mistakes you make get recorded; they get measured. And we're not used to that. We're used to a lot of things being overlooked. Like I give the example of a guy who is on a date with a woman. And like he's a nice guy, but he just smiles a bit too long at the waitress, and her smartphone tells her that afterwards.
Roberts: The date, not the waitress.
Cowen: So the whole thing's against people and we're going to have to back out of that much more. I don't think that will be so easy.
Roberts: I agree with that. We see it happening now.
Cowen: One wrong Tweet and you get in a lot of trouble.