Interview with Alex Pentland Can We Use Big Data to Make Society Better?

Alex Pentland:
Jason Grow/ DER SPIEGEL

Alex Pentland:

Part 2: The NSA 'Makes Orwell's 1984 World Look Almost Friendly'


SPIEGEL: And this kind of incentive also works in other areas?

Pentland: We used it rather successfully to save energy in Switzerland. Or let's take public health -- many people would like to lose weight, but are unable to do it because they're surrounded by people who don't lose weight either. This works much better within a support group. There are, for example, scales that tweet your weight every day to your workgroup, and if someone's weight goes up, everyone gives them a hard time. And if it goes down, everybody congratulates them. People are scared to do it, but I tell you: It works amazingly.

SPIEGEL: If social incentives work that well, why aren't they used more widely in industry?

Pentland: That's a good question. There's a lot of research showing that economic incentives don't work very well, but politicians and business leaders still always only talk about individual incentives and not about social incentives. They just don't think about people as members of a social fabric.

SPIEGEL: But we all want to be seen as individuals, and not as dependent on what other people do.

Pentland: Well, people feel uncomfortable when you doubt their free will. But as a matter of fact, most of our behavior is stuff we just pick up from each other -- and it's good the way it is. That's what we call culture. Right? Culture is good. Without culture we wouldn't survive.

SPIEGEL: So far we've been talking about social physics without even mentioning Big Data. On the other hand, you claim that Big Data is fundamental to your field …

Pentland: Yeah, Big Data is to the study of social behavior what the microscope was to the study of bacteria. If you want to construct a better society, you need a complete picture of social interactions. Until very recently we had neither the data nor the mathematics to analyze it. But now, thanks to Big Data, we can know exactly who interacts when, where and with whom.

SPIEGEL: And how do you do this?

Pentland: First of all, you have to write down exactly what you're going to do, and then a federal committee needs to certify that you will protect people's privacy and behave ethically. Finally, you need to have the informed consent of all of the participants to guarantee that they understand what's happening.

SPIEGEL: And what happens once all this is done?

Pentland: In one of our projects, for example, we study young families. First, we give them all brand-new phones with software that anonymously reports who they talk to, where, where they go, what they do on Facebook. I also look at their credit card records and we ask them dozens and dozens of questions. You end up with their pattern of communication across all media, and how this interacts with how they thought and felt.

SPIEGEL: You also read their emails, and examine their phone conversations and bank accounts?

Pentland: No, we don't look at that. We don't record it. We don't look at dollar amounts. We are just interested in patterns: How often do they go to the theater? Do they go to fast-food or high-priced restaurants? How often do they go to the supermarket? And we can see, for example, when people are overspending -- which, by the way, turns out to be a behavior largely driven by social interaction as well.

SPIEGEL: Do you intervene if you see a family with a heavy overspending problem or that a father is drinking too much?

Pentland: No, never. But we might in the future. The more science is moving forward and the better we understand human behavior, the more you get the obligation to act.

SPIEGEL: So by using Big Data you hope to create a better society?

Pentland: That's right. And, in this area, what we need more than anything is a discussion about how we share data -- what I've called a "New Deal on Data". Because the solution to all of our big challenges -- global warming, management of traffic, new epidemics -- depend critically on how we share our data.

SPIEGEL: But this would also increase the risk of abuses.

Pentland: Not if everybody has control of his or her own data.

SPIEGEL: This sounds pretty naive. Taking into account the enormous amount of data circulating about everybody, how do you want to enforce control?

Pentland: This is easier than you might think. Take your bank: You can go online and see your money, right? And nobody knows about it except your bank. And if you don't trust them any more you can close your account at any time. The same principle could be applied to other areas as well. It may sound complicated, but it's not.

SPIEGEL: But with your "New Deal on Data" people would be able to give them permission to share my data with others.

Pentland: Your cell phone provider already knows where you are and who your friends are. The bank knows about your money. Hospitals know about your health. And they want to be able to use these data to provide better service, to increase your wealth, to improve your health. But they can't. Thousands of people are dying because the hospitals can't share their data.

SPIEGEL: But if you allow them to exchange data at will, this might mean trusting them too much.

Pentland: We're talking about highly regulated industries. You can make laws that force them to let you know what information they have about you. There are already such laws. For instance, in Switzerland, all medical information is now kept in a way that is controlled by the patients themselves.

SPIEGEL: And how about the new superpowers in the world of data -- Google and Facebook? Do you want to extend their freedom to exchange data as well?

Pentland: You're right. Right now, it's like the Wild West. But there is hope. Once you can show that the "New Deal on Data" works in some areas, then you can go to the Facebooks and Googles and tell them: "Sorry, but you see, it works." There is no reason why what works for banks, shouldn't work just as well in other areas - except that Facebook won't be happy about it.

SPIEGEL: And what happens when it is the government collecting the data? The recent scandal around the NSA has shown us how eager the secret service is to learn everything about us.

Pentland: That's a huge danger. There is nothing more dangerous in this new world than somebody with a lot of big computers and the ability to collect a lot of data -- whether it's any company or the government. I think, the big mistake of NSA was to have such a centralized database. They make Orwell's 1984 world look almost friendly.

SPIEGEL: And it raises the danger of leaks. Luckily it was only Snowden stealing …

Pentland: Well, do you think so? Snowden just happened to tell everybody about it. I'll bet you can find five other people who stole the same data and sold them rather than telling us about it. That's the real stupidity of NSA.

SPIEGEL: Professor Pentland, we thank you for this interview.

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