Load previous section

Chapter 2 — Visualize the Future

2.2 Information Is the Fuel

Data is basically a bunch of symbols that simply are. Data becomes information when you assign meaning to it or when you can derive a relational connection from it. Knowledge is the interaction of different sorts of information with a particular purpose. For example, we would have no temperature if only cold existed. And no darkness without light. So information cannot exist without a context, and without contextual associations we wouldn't be able to make sense of our world or be able to create knowledge. In other words, information forms the basis of our knowledge creation.

ANCIENT DATA by Danny Nicholson (taken from Flickr)

In his book 'A Social History of Knowledge', Peter Burke mentions the great impact the advent of printing techniques had on our ability to spread information, and most importantly, he emphasises the interactions that made certain knowledge possible. He provides a thorough analysis and gives many examples of this, including the interaction between scholars and craftsmen in the time of Renaissance Italy: “In the early fifteenth century the humanist Leon Battista Alberti had frequent conversations with the sculptor Donatello and the engineer Filippo Brunelleschi. Without these conversations between such experts it would have been difficult for him to write his treatises on painting and architecture”. So, knowledge was — and still is — created thanks to the information we have access to and the way we can share it and change it. Emile Durkheim (1858 – 1917) had this idea in mind already and claimed that knowledge was the collective representation of ideas, beliefs and values. So it seems natural to think we have changed the way we create knowledge if we consider the different ways we access, share and change information today. Today, we are witnessing how the web is enabling interactions that weren't possible just a few years ago. The web makes it possible to access, share and change information. Google, for example, links it for you in an instant.

Cloud computing is transforming our digital reality. As data and applications move from the desktop to 'the Cloud', information becomes accessible anywhere, enabling collaboration with distributed teams. Engaging with people via crowdsourcing, social networks and smart apps is now a top priority for senior marketers worldwide. Personal customization of everything is an expected standard. We are always on and ready to participate. From music, fashion and search results to blogs — we are not just observers, but contributors and producers. — ANNE LISE KJAER

Wolfram Alpha takes a slightly different approach. It's a search engine but doesn't work like Google. It offers real-time computable interpretations of a large knowledge database as answers to any question you enter. Its goal is to bring expert-level knowledge to everybody and contains trillions of elements of data. It achieves this by making all sorts of information quantifiable, so that it can compute solutions on the fly. You can ask it what the weather was on a certain date at a certain location, or how the planets will align in the future. You can also get detailed nutritional information about certain types of food or how many calories you burn when you go for a walk.

WOLFRAMALPHA taken from www.wolframalpha.com

This trend of having more and more information available in a computable way is making it possible for people to build knowledge faster and in ways not previously available. Basically, information about everything is readily available. We could be Aristotle's and da Vinci's Homo Universalis now. We're getting there by building smart ways of filtering and interpreting information that is useful and meaningful to us.

…the future internet should not only be about quantity but also about reliability and quality of information in any form. — JAN BUIJS

All the information that is being generated in the entire world is giving rise to new forms of knowledge. With the help of Artificial Intelligence (AI) technologies, we can now have access to data about data, which we can also call meta data. What happens is that there's more value in meta data than if you simply added up all the raw data. For example, one of the new forms of stress in our modern society comes from the fact of having to take decisions based on a multiple set of options. We have to choose and therefore we will always be somewhat unhappy about the bunch of other options we had to leave out (a kind of opportunity cost). AI might offer a solution to that: imagine you want to travel around for a year, and you have to make all sorts of decisions such as choosing the destinations, the types of transportation, the budget, and so on. A huge database of travel experiences of real people and AI techniques will filter everything into two or three customized options to suit your best interests pretty accurately. As we've said, it's not simply a question of adding up individual data, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. This phenomenon is called emergent knowledge. The more traveller experiences there are in the database, the better the service will be. Now add a real-time factor, because not only would you like to get the best travel options but you might like to get them 'on the go'; the service would then be on the Cloud and should be able to react immediately, so that you can be spontaneous and get authentic experiences.

Immediacy is compelling and addictive as it gives us a sense of living in the now. Why wait if you can shop, bank, chat and check headline news on the go? — ANNE LISE KJAER

All this holds true for the meta data that is being generated in the Cloud right now with all the things you do when using online services. Maybe the important question here would be the one Lucy Kimbell puts to all of us: “What can these new forms of information do for us and with us? And who is actually 'us'? Placing these questions as a central point is important to recognize the value of it”. Additionally, the emergent knowledge we are generating, particularly on the web, is increasingly becoming the most important collective representation of ideas, beliefs and values. If this is happening now 'inside' the web, imagine what will happen when the web comes out and gets embodied in more and more objects and spaces? New associations and information about information will be possible. But how will this happen?


Information is readily searchable because it can be encoded into a digital form, enabling computers to work with the information and automate search processes. In other words, information is computable. Like information, objects are becoming digital information elements too. This probably started around 2004, when the US government launched a programme to implement RFID chips in their military vehicles. You might not think much of RFID itself; after all, it's just a little chip, it's usually passive, contains an identifier code of an object and that's it. As simple as it may seem though, this chip, and more importantly, the information on it, was the first step in making everyday objects computable.

Building on this technique, you can embed more information than just a single identifier code. Imagine a bottle of milk being transported from a farm to your local store, after which you buy it and put it in your fridge. At each stage of the transportation process, the information on the bottle can be changed. You can for example accumulate all the intermediate locations of this specific bottle on the chip. Your bottle then contains its own history. This type of information is sometimes called the 'digital shadow' of an object2Kuniavsky, M., 2010. Smart Things: Ubiquitous Computing User Experience Design. Burlington, MA: Morgan Kaufmann.. Other objects can read out this information and will then react in a certain predefined way.


The widespread use of techniques like RFID has sparked a huge paradigm shift. When objects are digital entry points, the worlds between objects and the internet merge. Objects will get interfaces which can grab digital data from the Cloud. But what about online data that exists only in the Cloud? Sure, you have your social life on internet, but how social is staring at a flat screen actually? At the moment we're stuck with our screen — the hub between the physical and the digital. We believe this will change, and our hunch tells us that having more computational objects in the future will depend on our aspirations to have immediate services wherever we need them. Unless of course you sincerely believe that spending our lives in front of a screen is something we aspire. We don't think so. Yes, we love our digital services, and yes, we have created our connected world where we can talk to anyone and get all the information we want. Now, we just want all those digital services to come to us in such a way that we can really identify with them and that our lives will benefit from them instead of the other way around. Maybe the fact that the web is spreading out into computational objects is a sign of our basic aspiration for going back to our most natural interactions with the world. Computational objects may be a way to get there.

The core of the Internet of Things is to seamlessly gather information about objects in the physical world and using the information in multiple applications. Information collection about the origin of goods, location, movements, physical properties, usage record, and context can help enterprises improve business processes, and also create new ones. Needs within a variety of sectors can be addressed, such as remote health monitoring and diagnostics, safe and independent living, intelligent traffic management, improved environmental monitoring, and adaptive energy management. — ANNE LISE KJAER
EMOTIV EPOC HEADSET courtesy of Emotiv

With the rise of computational objects, for example health monitoring devices, it's now possible to analyze and quantify ourselves. In essence, a blood pressure monitor reads body-generated data. Perhaps that may not seem so interesting, but look at what brain wave monitors potentially can do. The Emotiv EPOC is a headset that can measure your EEG patterns in an unobtrusive way. Emotiv itself calls it not merely a brain wave monitor, but a brain computer interface. The headset makes it possible to compute with brain-generated data. Already it's possible to control a computer game by mere thoughts. Or to type by thinking. Taking this a step further, we can think of a whole lot of possibilities. Just through directing our thoughts, we can control our computers, our TV, our lights. What about information going in the reverse direction, i.e. fed back into our brain? While neurologists haven't got very far in discovering how our brains work in a detailed way, there's lots of progress being made. For example, the Laboratory of Neural Prosthesis at Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago is developing an intra-cortical visual prosthesis, which essentially is a wearable bridge device that links hardware camera imagery directly to your visual cortex through the electronic stimulation of neurons. As a thought experiment, imagine that the visual module you're reading now can reliably implant visuals in your brain. Also think of a thought-controlled computer that has internet access to all kinds of imagery. If you link the two, it's suddenly possible to think of a purple cow and you would actually see it in front of you. Much like synaesthesia, in which one sensory pathway is linked to another (hearing colours is an example), you could wire up a brain that has extended functionalities. Ray Kurzweil strongly believes in this blend of humans and machines and calls it human transcending biology. This may sound far-fetched on the face of it, but if you think carefully about the way we're doing things now with the web and our smartphones, maybe we are slowly getting to the stage where we feel comfortable being so close to our technology. So let's take a step back and observe how the more data our technologies can translate into sensible information, the more 'intelligent' these technologies become. Until now we've seen that data will be almost everything and everywhere and, more importantly, easily accessible. But how do we make sense of these massive heaps of data? Which data can become relevant information? It's not feasible to let a mere human interpret it anymore. But even single computers can't keep up with collecting all the data that's being generated. It's simply too much.


To make sense of all the data floating around in the Cloud, we might need to interpret it in an automatic way. That's why the future world will heavily rely on AI, because AI makes it possible to construct meaningful chunks of information out of large piles of data. AI can convert raw audio files into written language. AI can translate languages on the fly using linguistic processing techniques. AI makes it possible to automatically detect faces and objects in photos that consist of raw pixel data. And much, much more. AI enables us to get information on a level that makes sense to us humans.

We can go one step further though. What about another level of intelligence on top of this information layer? Now a whole new world of possibilities opens up. Let's consider a simple example: imagine that you use images or videos the same way you use words when Googling something; you'll just take a video or a picture and ask the Cloud about information on it. Additionally, the Cloud will know your location and will make contextual associations that might match your interests. Now we're getting there; all photos today contain some kind of information like the brand of the camera, the shutter speed used, but also geo-information. All these photos are being uploaded and are readily available through services like Flickr. Now imagine a web service that continuously monitors new photos and, by using AI techniques, automatically tags objects in these photos. Now you have a giant database of objects coupled with their geolocation. So, by using countless photos from anonymous people around the world, you can actually derive valuable information about where certain objects are in the world. You could even trace the transportation history of an object this way. AI could interpret data for us on whole new levels and give us information about the world that wasn't possible before. Of course at the moment there are technological issues concerning capacity, reliability and, more importantly, there are unresolved issues regarding privacy and security. These issues are mostly associated with policy making and corporate interests, but we believe you can play your part by designing Meta Products in which the manipulation of information is transparent. Naturally, this is a great challenge, comparable to the kind of challenge faced by product designers needing to take into account sustainability and environmental protection. These types of issues tend to seem so overwhelming that it becomes difficult to understand what kind of influence we can have on them — either positive or negative. However, we believe that if you really co-create with empathy and work in a transdisciplinary team, you will be able to foresee abuse of information, and figure out a way to prevent it. Think, for example, of interactions that people can control and where the options of sharing or not sharing information are clear. Perhaps if you — and others like you — embrace these simple ways of working, you might actually prevent commercial or political interests being imposed on people's privacy and security. In chapter 4 you will find more about transdisciplinary teams.

The Cloud is so disruptive in terms of how it's affecting all areas that it's having a real big impact on security and how enterprises manage their data centers today. — RICH MOGULL3Rich Mogull, founder and CEO of Securosis at the RSA Conference 2011.

At the Mobile World congress 2011 in Barcelona, CEO & chairman of Google, Erik Schmidt, said that it is reasonable to expect some sort of artificial intelligence to grow on top of all existing platforms in the next 10 years. “The more Google knows about you, the more personal information you will get.” Is this our future interactive process of knowledge? Google and others may see a future in which you will never get lost because you will always have the route information with you, or you will never be bored because there will always be entertainment available, or you will never be stupid because there will always be suitable solutions for you to apply; or they might even say you will never be alone because you will always have contact with your friends or with artificial intelligence that knows you better than anyone else. We could see these scenarios being possible. However, it won't be technology-pushed; the technologies of artificial intelligence will become a part of our lives as a result of the way people build their aspirations and when they get to recognize these technologies as a way to fulfil them. What is unquestionable is that the interactive process of knowledge will be even faster, and that building more, and more meaningful, filters to use the endless streams of information will become absolutely crucial. In chapter 3 you will find more about 'meaning' and how it is related to people's perception of value.