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We are all cyborgs now

In Edgar Allan Poe's 1839 story, The Man That Was Used Up, the main character is an old general, wounded in battle, who is completely rebuilt using synthetic prostheses. That was one of the first literary examples of a "cyborg", a living being enhanced by technology.

More than 150 years later, we could say that we have all become like the old general, thanks to our electronic prostheses - the smartphone, among other things - that help us to survive in the digital age.

The results of such transformations are right before our eyes (pardon, before our smartphones): We have begun to digitalise and transmit our lives in real time. The world is being "livecast", an instantaneous projection of everything that happens around us - from the food we're about to enjoy in a restaurant to the shootout taking place next door. The Internet of Things is edging us towards a condition in which a network of intelligent objects ceaselessly monitors and transmits the world in which we live, not unlike the collective action of the millions of people who are active on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other social media, recording life as it flows along beside us.

It's all an age-old dream. In 1945, the visionary MIT computer scientist Vannevar Bush imagined a machine called Memex (a portmanteau word combining memory and index), which was capable of creating an "enlarged intimate supplement to one's memory".

Several decades later, the electrical engineer and researcher Gordon Bell tried to put this into practice, with a project called "Your Life, Uploaded".

Mr Bell developed software and hardware to capture every aspect of his life through photos, biometric data, online activity, etc. Even though his technology was rudimentary, he continued to record his own existence for more than a decade. "The result?" he asked. "An amazing enhancement of human experience from health and education to productivity and just reminiscing about good times. And then, when you are gone, your memories, your life will still be accessible for your grandchildren."


The Munich shooting of July 22 shows that information collected on the Internet can be a great resource for the forces of order (videos allowed for the swift identification of the killer). But the same data can be used for evil, as was recalled by these same Bavarian policemen, who recommended that no one post any information that could be useful to runaway terrorists. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

What Mr Bell had not foreseen were the effects of sharing an enormous amount of data (Big Data). As in all cyborg systems, powerful feedback loops are triggered in real time, in such a way that positive and negative effects are difficult to predict.

As shown by the recent Munich shooting, information collected on the Internet can be a great resource for the forces of order (videos allowed for the swift identification of the killer). But the same data can be used for evil, as was recalled by these same Bavarian policemen, who recommended that no one post any information that could be useful to runaway terrorists.

Big Data can at times become Bad Data: erroneous or deceiving information, like the false Facebook post that the Munich terrorist allegedly made, offering free food to lure as many people as possible to the local McDonald's. Aggregated data can equally conceal pitfalls. As the 19th-century British prime minister Benjamin Disraeli once put it: "There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics."

Furthermore, Big Data can at times become Bad Data: erroneous or deceiving information, like the false Facebook post that the Munich terrorist allegedly made, offering free food to lure as many people as possible to the local McDonald's. Aggregated data can equally conceal pitfalls. As the 19th-century British prime minister Benjamin Disraeli once put it: "There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics." Something similar could be said today, in the era of Big Data. It is crucial to examine the quality of the information we collect - preferably involving citizens in the verification process. A key aspect of the Web is that it's democratic and "autocritic" - that is, capable of monitoring itself.

Finally, how do we interpret the immense amount of information that is collected? As in the 1990s, at the beginning of the Internet boom, we find ourselves drowning in data. During that early period, Google was able to bring order to the Internet, allowing us to easily find what, at the start, seemed like a needle in a haystack. In a similar way, we need new instruments today to interpret new types of data. The first webpages required only simple search engines based on keywords, but current information produced by sensors and videos require more evolved forms of artificial intelligence.

The problem of the interpretation of data is also crucial for understanding the future role of media, for which analysis is probably going to become even more central than "breaking the news". The printed pages - and the Web pages - of major newspapers seem hopelessly out-of-date when compared with the immediacy of real-time footage. Whether we want it or not, live news keeps chasing us, thanks to the frenetic activity of millions of reporters from the frontlines of life, or of death - as was the case of the dramatic Facebook Live Stream of the shooting of a black man by a police officer in Minneapolis earlier this month.

This is not Orwell's imagined Big Brother, but rather, millions of Little Cousins connected on the Web. The cyborg city.

• Carlo Ratti, an architect and engineer by education, teaches at MIT and is the director of international design firm Carlo Ratti Associati.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 28, 2016, with the headline 'We are all cyborgs now'. Print Edition | Subscribe