Big Data – the real big deal

I recently returned from Israel where I was honoured to deliver a keynote on right-brain thinking at a conference called All Things Data.

Many delegates requested a copy of the presentation. As most of my slides were graphics rather than text, therefore I thought the best way to accommodate them was to write up the talk as an article.

So here goes…

Jonathan Gabay All Things Data talk 2017

Generally to date, the arc of technology has curved towards a direction which is to the net good.

Many of the world’s leading tech companies including Intel, Google, Microsoft EMC and countless others, depend on Israeli data science. The country leads how the world gathers and interprets data on everything from medical sciences to car navigation, logistics… and much more. In fact it is no exaggeration to state that without Israel’s cutting edge data insights, many of life’s everyday decisions would be crude guestimates made with blunt instruments.

The sheer enormity of data is mind boggling. Estimates vary, but taking just one suggestion from IBM (another major tech player in Israel) there are some 2.5 quintillion bytes of data whirring around the digital universe. Ninety per cent of the world’s data has been created in the last two years alone. Taking photographs alone, there are more pictures, especially Selfies, snapped daily than in the first 110 years of photography.

Data scientists like nothing better than to take a leisurely swim in data lakes filled with possibilities. However, by relying purely on algorithms, such number crunchers run similar risks as researchers who have to depend on quantitative research alone, rather than also taking qualitative research into account. In addition to being misleading, those data lake possibilities can turn out to be sinister - in many ways.

Just as there are lies, damn lies and statistics, so too there can also be little big data lies which, when left in the hands of economists, corporations or politicians can easily become weapons of mass disinformation: Take the following illustration: data suggests that an increase in ice cream sales directly corresponds with a rise in shark attacks at a notorious Florida stretch called New Smyrna Beach.

Naively, it could be suggested that people who eat ice cream taste better to sharks. On the other hand, it could just turn out that on cold days, less ice cream is purchased, fewer swimmers take a dip and so there are less shark attacks.

Here’s another illustration of data lakes containing shallow depths: The early 2017 PR crisis of United Airlines manhandling a passenger by dragging him off an overbooked flight from Chicago to Louisville is yet another case of algorithms ruling over common sense. Overbooking on airlines is nothing new. Airlines want to avoid losing money on empty seats. As with so many organisations, airlines allow themselves to be dictated algorithms – irrespective of human costs.

  • United’s corporate scheduling algorithm deemed that a flight crew had priority over passenger fares. It calculated that four passengers should be removed to make room for the crew. (The flight wasn’t overbooked).

  • United’s financial algorithm then went into action authorising gate employees to offer passengers up to $800 to accept a later flight. (No passenger took the offer).

  • United then automatically ran a customer value algorithm which calculated the value of each passenger based on frequent-flyer status, ticket price', connecting flights, etc. Passengers showing the lowest value to United were identified for removal.

United's fiasco speaks volumes about the totalitarianism of algorithms. Each day, we are getting ever closer to automatically outsourcing human thinking to computer circuitry.

Intelligent big data needs to be allowed to inform creativity, rather than dictate process.

This month (May) in America, has been declared mental health awareness month. (Nothing to do with President Trump’s term in office). Figures from the Samaritans reveal that in 2015 alone, 6,188 suicides were recorded in the UK, with the most vulnerable age group being men aged between 40 and 44.

The web is full of sites explaining the quickest ways to commit suicide. One site, Insider Monkey, lists seven of the easiest and painless ways to kill yourself.

Reading through the list I noticed that Big Data marketers had ensured their clients’ adverts were placed throughout the article. In a section detailing the benefits of shooting yourself with gun through the brain, there was an advert selling the merits of buying a new BMW Mini Clubman. In another section explaining the chemical reactions of prescription drugs on the body, an advert promoted the beauty of a tropical island reached only by ‘the love boat.” A piece on the potency of sleeping pills offered to “have all of it in one app” by booking a hotel on Trivago.

Having spent three decades operating in an industry that understands that everything in advertising and marketing operates on the unobtainable, I took a special interest in understanding the psychology of why – or why not – people trust brands. This included writing a book called, Brand Psychology. In it I noted that increasingly, despite their clinical addiction to smart phones, consumers are growing disenchanted with the hype of big data marketing. (It is one reason that browser ad-blockers are one of the best-selling variety of plug-ins).

As with many countries around the world, Israeli Generation Zs are vocal about unwanted, unsolicited and unauthentic advertising. But whilst they may want to break free from feeling processed, the marketers at big brands (still with one eye on a distant pension and their finger on ‘best practice meat processing’) simply choose to ignore them. They forget that, at least for the time being, they are in the business of marketing to people not bots or the internet of ‘things’– and unlike bots – people are neither ‘things’ nor binary).

ALT-right, ALT-left - choose your alternatives

Many believe that the answer to resolving how to make big data more ‘human’ is to appeal to the ‘right side’ of the mind. In theory that could work – but in practice it is far more complex. To begin with, nobody on the planet thinks with just one side of their brain – unless they have a serious medical impediment or are clinically dead. Whilst some are more disposed to being creative or analytical, in truth, real creativity draws from both sides of the brain – reason and rhythm.

And just as creativity is braided, so big data information overload has driven people to question the difference between subjective and objective truth. The rise of Alt-facts (or truth) have driven people to coalesce into micro bubbles of data realities which confirm preferred biases based on cultural, demographic or social cliques. Over time, as age and scepticism sets in, truth itself becomes even more fluid which in turn gives rise to a condition which in psychology is known as online (or consumer) disinhibition. This refers to people saying online whatever they think will best suit their own agendas as opposed to the algorithm led straightjackets of marketers – thus turning the entire business of big data as a precise science into a farce.

With passions rising high, ‘ecommerce’ (emotional commerce) leads to a complete disruption of carefully manicured ‘left-brain’ data science. (A recent case of note was the 45th USA presidential election which was hijacked by Russia using ‘ecommerce’ on social media). Such emotional commerce thrives on two of the most basic of human conditions – ‘what’s in it for me’? and – ‘why is this other guy taking up too my own hard-earned space’? (In other words, tribalism).

The biggest change in human history since discovering the world wasn't flat

Approximately five hundred years ago humankind underwent some of the most key moments in its development. For example, ships discovered the world was not flat, there was the fall of Christian Constantinople to the Muslim Ottomans (significantly altering the Middle East)... the introduction of tobacco… America being reached (for the first time) and the race for the Silk Routes.

Your cohort is at the turn of a once in every five hundred years change. The heart of that change is data. Already managers are choosing to save costs and increase efficiencies by entrusting data – rather than people to manage on scale.

Behaviourism has already laid down firm foundations to ensure that barely a moment can pass without the average person feeling compelled to check their social media account. Eighteen per cent of children aged between six and eight now own their own mobile phone according to research among 2,000 consumers carried out by Peli. Ownership rises to nearly 20% for children aged between nine and 11, with over 50% of children over the age of 13 now owning a phone.

Barely ten years ago the thought of being connected to the web as being a basic human right would have been considered ludicrous. The dream of having computers behave like humans is being realised. We are reaching a tipping point where humans will become computers. People like Elon Musk have already suggested that before long a ‘third’ element will be added to the human limbic system – a plug-in digital interface to the web. Within no more than thirty years it has been predicted that data-driven AI and VR as well as other technologies will be smarter than people. Once big data reaches that level of sophistication, fundamental questions will need to be asked including, “if data has qualities of being human – will it also have rights?” “Will turning it off be a form of murder?”

Tech is at its best when invisible. It is at its worst when the the people it serves become invisible

We are entering an era when Big data will touch everything we currently understand. Billions of devices providing real-time insights into the economic activities of countries will fundamentally alter what we currently recognize as national states. Already computers are replacing people at work. This alone presents a real and present danger to mental health – for without work there is little meaning and purpose – apart from serving the technology meant to serve people.

Whilst this may all sound like doom and gloom it is also a challenge offering a slim window of opportunity to seize upon. Having succeeded in addressing left-brain logic, the ability to preserve and enhance right brain-thinking will become a premium.

Right now, psychology – rather than just technology alone - is needed to ensure that brands, corporations, nations and society as a whole will take the next steps in our brave new world that enhances the human spirit as opposed to crushing it.

Jonathan Gabay

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