Where Einstein Meets Edison

Sandy Pentland on the Future of Mobile

Where many envision mobile phones as drivers of communications through voice and text, MIT Professor Sandy Pentland sees the mobile phone in a much broader context. To him, the way we use our mobile phones today reveals much more than just ordinary conversations: what groups we belong to, the patterns we operate in, and how we function emotionally in human interactions. Pentland asserts that mobile phone technology has advanced to the extent that we can utilize it to give us greater insights into social habits and patterns. Combining computer science and entrepreneurship, he is attempting to fill in the gaps that exist between science and business within this field.

At the Better World @ MIT month ago, organized by the MIT Enterprise Forum, Executive Producers Peter Zak and Patrick Robinson invited Pentland to share his views on the future of mobile phones and interactive signaling. He spoke about two trends likely to shape the future of mobile phones in the near future: reality mining and honest signals.

Reality Mining:

‘Reality mining’ fundamentally works, Pentland argues, largely because humans are creatures of habit. By utilizing our closest electronic companions – mobile phones – to trace our movements and actions, we can analyze these habits in their entirety, helping us consciously see patterns where before there were only unconscious acknowledgements. In this sense, reality mining helps to combat cognitive dissonance, which inhibits our ability to actively monitor daily patterns. Through the usage of mobile phones, an “electronic footprint” of the individual is thus constructed, giving us a more accurate view of his or her habits. At the Better World conference, Pentland stated that “over 70% of individual actions can be predicted with accuracy based on previous habits.”

In this regard, reality mining involves two separate tracks: first the collection of the data, followed byinterpretation, in search ofinsights into human behavior. To gain a more complete picture, Pentland proposes another radical concept: analysis of “honest signals”, or non-verbal cues that humans typically exhibit in communication.

Honest Signals

            In a world built on verbal communication, non-verbal cues can often be relegated to a secondary position in modern interaction. Whether in terms of speech or alphabet, verbal cues structure the majority of interactions between individuals, ranging from television commercials to radio broadcasts. Yet Pentland argues that non-verbal cues can actually offer equally revealing insights about our character and habits; where we eat, how we react, and what we do. Four kinds of signals stand out to him: influence, mimicry, activity, and consistency. 

Thus, through using data from mobile phones and other electronic devices to track these signals –  again showing the need to collect data from reality mining – Pentland proposes creating a “god’s eye” view of how people interact, in effect “seeing” the rhythms of interaction for everyone in a city. To illustrate his point, he shows slides indicating patterns of individuals who eat at McDonalds and individuals who drink at Starbucks, and then correlates their patterns to their other activities.

            The combination of collection and interpretation could have immense ramifications beyond merely predicting where an individual could go for lunch on a given day. For example, it could be used to predict the spread of infectious diseases, as viruses are mainly spread through human-to-human contact. It could also be used for emergency responses, attempting to predict which areas in a city need more firefighters or police forces. Ultimately, by illuminating patterns of human behavior, honest signals enable honest responses.

Mobile Phones as Extensions?

            Yet to many observers, this form of continuous personalized data monitoring might seem disconcerting, even as it presents new possibilities for human discovery. While reality data mining and honest signaling might provide a new platform for information, there are potential security and privacy threats that could result as a by-product of the proliferation of such technology.  As a result, the threat of data piracy is real and could cause some consumers to feel reservations.

            Pentland has thought about and addressed this issue. “Who owns the data?” he asks pointedly. He argues that there has to be the creation of a “new deal” on privacy – one that allows the individual to become conscious of how his or her data is being spread or used. The basic concept of this “new deal” is that the individual “owns” the data that he or she creates, and safeguards are necessary to prevent malicious use. He also stresses that there has to be an “opt-out” option that enables individuals to withdraw or move away from the network if they feel threatened or violated. Ultimately, while reality mining promises to be a game-changing technology, stringent regulations are required to ensure secure global adoption.