tech­nol­ogy tak­ing mys­tery out of life

Montreal Gazette - - NEWS - JOSH FREED josh­

The one thing I was happy about on Que­bec elec­tion night was that the poll­sters were com­pletely wrong. Nowa­days, I like to see peo­ple out­wit the pre­dic­tions.

Ev­ery­where you look, Big Data and tech­nol­ogy are mak­ing things more pre­dictable — and the un­ex­pected more ex­pected. They’re tak­ing the mys­tery out of life.

Weather fore­casts once seemed like ran­dom en­ter­tain­ment, but to­day’s satel­lite weather sites are so ac­cu­rate about ap­proach­ing show­ers, you can al­most count down the sec­onds to open­ing your um­brella.

I’m trav­el­ling to Dublin next month and I al­ready know it will be 12 de­grees and cloudy Nov. 3, very windy on the 4th, then rainy with a chance of frost the fol­low­ing four days — based on av­er­age weather charts the last 20 years.

It’s sim­i­larly pre­dictable when we drive our cars and the GPS rec­om­mends the fastest route, then an­nounces you will ar­rive at 5:12 p.m. — and 36 min­utes later you do.

Our buses aren’t any­where near as pre­dictable, but at least there’s now a live iBus app to let us know how late they’ll be.

There are fewer un­knowns ev­ery­where. In olden days, you never knew when friends might sur­prise you by knock­ing on your door, when vis­it­ing your area. But that’s more un­usual to­day, when peo­ple can use their cell­phone first to let you know they’re nearby.

In fact, many will po­litely text be­fore even sur­pris­ing you with a phone call.

In to­day’s dig­i­tal so­ci­ety, we’re usu­ally one step ahead of the clock. More and more pedes­trian lights count down sec­onds so you know pre­cisely when traf­fic will halt.

How long be­fore there’s sim­i­lar tech at the su­per­mar­ket cash, pre­dict­ing how many min­utes you’ll wait in each lane — based on in-store cam­era anal­y­sis of what’s in ev­ery gro­cery cart? AT­TEN­TION SHOP­PERS: Aisle 1 wait time: Four min­utes, 37 sec­onds.

Aisle 2: Two min­utes 43 sec­onds — but pos­si­ble de­lay due to el­derly man hold­ing sheaf of dis­count coupons.

There seems to be no end to what we can pre­dict about hu­man be­hav­iour, as com­puter al­go­rithms an­a­lyze our ev­ery move and use it to cal­cu­late our next one.

My com­puter’s auto-cor­rect func­tion al­ready pre­dicts what words I’m typ­ing and com­pletes them as if it could reed my brian.

But lately, its so­phis­ti­cated

“pre­dic­tive typ­ing ” can fore­see and com­plete en­tire sen­tences, based on my per­sonal writ­ing style and what I’ve writ­ten be­fore — so Que­bec’s win­ter fes­ti­val is a Mount Royal of messy pot­hole smoked meat.

Oops, sorry, I’ve just turned that func­tion off.

Hu­mans have al­ways tried to pre­dict their own and other peo­ples’ be­hav­iour — that’s how we nav­i­gate our way through re­la­tion­ships, work and daily life. But as com­puter cal­cu­la­tions make ev­ery­thing more pre­dictable there may be fewer and fewer sur­prises.

All new fridges will soon come with sen­sors that pre­dict when we’ll run out of but­ter or eggs — based on our daily con­sump­tion pat­terns — then re-or­der them on­line. The phrase “Geez, honey — we’re out of milk!” may quickly be­come an­cient his­tory.

The re­cent book 21 Lessons for the 21st Cen­tury pre­dicts that tiny med­i­cal “bio-sen­sors” will even­tu­ally mon­i­tor our en­tire bod­ies, to an­tic­i­pate un­ex­pected prob­lems in ad­vance. They’ll alert you be­fore you re­al­ize you’ve con­tracted a cold, or got preg­nant — or un­der­stood you’ll have Alzheimer’s in 15 years.

Mean­while, self-driv­ing cars will whisk you back from work with­out ask­ing your desti­na­tion, be­cause they’ll know your driv­ing pat­terns. They’ll even in­cor­po­rate ex­tra stops they pre­dict you’ll make.

You: Hey Car! Why’d you choose this route — isn’t it out of the way?

Car: It’s Thurs­day Josh, so I’m tak­ing St-Vi­a­teur home so you can stop at the bagel shop like most weeks, then get lox at the fish shop on St-Ur­bain, where I’ve al­ready re­served your usual 350 grams. With both stops and your av­er­age wait-time in the bagel line, your es­ti­mated ar­rival time will be 6:57 p.m.

Some things will al­ways be un­fore­seen. We can never en­tirely pre­dict na­ture, which is partly why we’re fas­ci­nated and hor­ri­fied by earth­quakes, tsunamis and Amer­i­can hurricanes.

We can’t pre­dict lottery win­ners, or how our chil­dren will turn out, or Don­ald Trump’s be­hav­iour.

The most un­pre­dictable thing in Mon­treal is con­struc­tion traf­fic, where one street has just closed when you’re driv­ing some­where, while the one you take in­stead is closed on the way back — flum­mox­ing even your GPS.

I’m hop­ing city hall will cre­ate an app to tell us what’s go­ing on when — but first they’ll have to fig­ure that out them­selves. Oth­er­wise I pre­dict their app will sound like this:

“Côte-St-Luc Rd West now closed for con­struc­tion — use StAn­toine West in­stead. UP­DATE … St-An­toine now re­ported closed … use Sher­brooke West in­stead.

… COR­REC­TION!: Sher­brooke West re­ported closed … Use … use ... use …

This in­for­ma­tion is cur­rently not avail­able. Please check back to­mor­row.”

But who am I to read the fu­ture? For now, all I can I pre­dict with cer­tainty is that in six more words, this col­umn will end.


Hun­dreds of fans fun­nel hot air from com­puter servers into a cool­ing unit to be re­cir­cu­lated at a Google data cen­tre in Ok­la­homa. Ev­ery­where you look, Big Data and tech­nol­ogy are mak­ing things more pre­dictable, Josh Freed writes.


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