Futures: Data Constellations And The Magic Of Emergence

Is there really an image of a bear in the nighttime sky? How about an archer, or some girls, or a big and little dipper?

Across the planet and the centuries, people have seen pictures in the stars—and more or less the same pictures, too. It takes a special kind of intelligence to do that. Dogs, for example, are intelligent creatures, but they don’t see the pictures.

As soon as people saw the star-pictures, they did another distinctly human thing: they made up stories about the pictures. Those stories were an attempt to comprehend the structure of something infinitely large and not directly knowable, and to make humanity a home in it.

But again, are the star-pictures “real”? Before we answer that, let’s ask this: Are the stories real? Well, of course they’re real. They exist, don’t they? People invented them and there they are. They have whatever reality stories can have—which happens to be a lot.

Well, the pictures are real, too. In exactly the same way.

The pictures came from pattern-recognition applied to data-points, and the stories are models of reality based upon the pictures.

Humanity is now creating a cosmos of its own—a digital cosmos in which the stars are points of information. Trillions upon trillions of sensors and controllers built into everyday electronic devices, products, and environments will generate whole starfields of data-points around themselves. The pattern-recognition built into the digital cosmos will “see” meaningful pictures in that infinity of stars, and those pictures will generate stories that will in turn make sense of human reality in ways never before possible.

The Magic Of Data

You’ve heard the famous observation by the writer Arthur C. Clarke: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

Most ordinary, non-technical people first “got it” about the magic of databases from Amazon.com. It started with “People who bought this also bought this.” Then it became “People who clicked on this also clicked on this.” Then it moved beyond being about “people” and started being about you: “The store you made.”

And then Amazon sat up on the table and started having…opinions: “We think you’ll like this.” And to an uncanny degree, the opinions and suggestions were right. You’d never even heard of half the things they were recommending, but those things just happened to be right up your alley.

Amazon stopped being a “store” and started being a smart business that—to some very real degree— understood who you were and what you cared about.  We’ve seen this tactic replicated by the likes of Netflix, Facebook, Google, and a range of online retailers.

The act of leaving your star-trail in the Amazon galaxy was “transparent” to you. You weren’t thinking about it. It required no special effort or conscious thought. It was the invisible by-product of normal activity, captured and then analyzed by an ingenious systems invented to create value from something that ordinarily would have disappeared into the ether.

That’s the magic of databases—which are, after all, just endless space to hold our stars.

In the truly connected world of smart systems, not only people but all electronic or electro-mechanical products and machines will leave similarly invisible trails of information stars, all the time.

That’s why we often use the term “Invisible Business” to describe the impact of smart systems on commerce and consumers. It means extraordinary value gleaned from something that used to be thought of as insignificant and thrown away. It means trillions of genies in trillions of bottles invisibly taking care of tasks that aren’t worth the attention of something as important as a human being. A world run by embedded algorithms.

Given a constant stream of star-points (sensors in smart devices), and sufficient analytic and inference-drawing intelligence (smart device management), the possible pictures and stories (smart services with real-world value) are unlimited.

This star gazing phenomenon enabled by smart systems is like the neurons of the brain, or ants in an anthill, or human beings in a society, as well as information devices connected to each other. The many “nodes” of a network may not be very “smart” in themselves, but if they are networked in a way that allows them to connect effortlessly and interoperate seamlessly, complex, system-wide behavior emerges.  An entirely new order of intelligence “emerges” from the system as a whole—an intelligence that could not have been predicted by looking at any of the nodes individually. There’s a distinct magic to this type of emergence, but it happens only if the network’s nodes are free to share information and processing power.

The realization of the smart systems and the Internet of Things will involve billions upon billions of protean network nodes that ultimately “take on a life of their own.” Our present-day conception of “intelligent devices” and global data networking does not allow for that. Until we change that situation, we will not achieve the emergent magic implied by star gazing.

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