Predicting our habits using big data

michael hainsworth alex pentland MIT

Our smartphones know more about us than our spouses, partners and friends. It’s no surprise we guard them with more than just screen protectors, considering the secrets they hold. But if we were to hand over the metadata to our devices and those of about 3 million of our neighbors, what could we learn about ourselves?

Next week on Futurithmic: MIT data scientist Alex “Sandy” Pentland will tell us how he’s predicting crime, economic growth and more, all while keeping your personal information safe and secure from prying eyes.

I’ll take you to the spot where so many life-changing technological leaps were achieved: the famed Building 20 at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It was called the “Rad Lab” during the early 1940s because the ramshackle temporary three storey building was home to 1 out every 5 physicists in the United States and their research into RADAR.

As a geek, it was intensely emotional, and not just because I got to stand underneath the first fruit of Building 20’s labour. It was also home to the Tech Model Railroad Club, a group of train nerds more interested in the wiring and automation of the track switches and lights than the running of a railroad at a scale of 1:87 (also known as “HO scale” still common in hobby shops today). Those nerds created hacker culture — literally coining the term “hack” to represent the work required to cut-down punch card programming code to fit in the early computers of the day and the original concept of “information wants to be free.”

When the original three-storey wood-framed structure was demolished in 1998, an elevator shaft was revealed to contain multiple sub-basements not on the original plans, leading to talk of secret labs deep underground conducting unknown experiments.

The hallowed ground on which Building 20 stood is now home to the Ray and Maria Stata Center, numbered Building 32, and is a 720,000 square foot incubator for technological change.

Michael Hainsworth outside of the Ray and Maria Strata Center, which houses the MIT Computer Science and AI Laboratory.

Among its occupants, the Stata now houses the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, the World Wide Web Consortium responsible for the building blocks of the Internet as we know it today, and quite possibly the most important facility of all: a childcare center.

“Mommy, look! That’s a robot!” a toddler exclaimed as my cameraman Dave smoothly tracked Pentland and me during one of our walks along the Charles M. Vest Student Street, a wide-open corridor on the main floor. With the support bars from his Ronin camera steady gimbal strapped to his chest, he looked like a black anodized android stalking its scientific prey.

That little boy (and possible future roboticist) is probably among the few in his age group, or that of his parents’ age group, likely to see an actual walking robot stroll the corridor. After all, Pentland’s coffee date before our chat was with Woodie Flowers, the MIT professor emeritus who launched the high school FIRST Robotics Competition in 1992 and inspired a generation of roboticists.

As we filmed next to an Anish Kapoor public art installation, inspiration in the words of Pentland were easily found. He wants to use the secrets hidden in your smartphone to make the world a better place.

Next week we’ll find out how he plans to do it — without compromising your privacy.

About Fast Future

It is our mission to explore the implications of emerging technologies, seeking answers to next-level questions about how they will affect society, business, politics and the environment of tomorrow.

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