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Step One: Turn The World To Data. Step Two?

By - February 03, 2014

housenumbers1Is the public ready to accept the infinite glance of our own technology? That question springs up nearly everywhere I look these days, from the land rush in “deep learning” and AI companies (here, here, here) to the cultural stir that accompanied Spike Jonze’ Her. The relentless flow of Snowden NSA revelations, commercial data breaches, and our culture’s ongoing battle over personal data further frame the question.

But no single development made me sit up and ponder as much as the recent news that Google’s using neural networks to decode images of street addresses. On its face, the story isn’t that big a deal: Through its Street View program, Google collects a vast set of images, including pictures of actual addresses. This address data is very useful to Google, as the piece notes: “The company uses the images to read house numbers and match them to their geolocation. This physically locates the position of each building in its database.”

In the past, Google has used teams of humans to “read” its street address images – in essence, to render images into actionable data. But using neural network technology, the company has trained computers to extract that data automatically – and with a level of accuracy that meets or beats human operators.Not to mention, it’s a hell of a lot faster, cheaper, and scaleable.

Sure, this means Google doesn’t have to pay people to stare at pictures of house numbers all day, but to me, it means a lot more. When I read this piece, the first thing that popped into my mind was “anything that can be seen by a human, will soon be seen by a machine.” And if it’s of value, it will be turned into data, and that data will be leveraged by both humans and machines – in ways we don’t quite fathom given our analog roots.

I remember putting up my first street number, on a house in Marin my wife and I had just purchased that was in need of some repair. I went to the hardware store, purchased a classic “6″ and “3″, and proudly hammered them onto a fence facing the street. It was a public declaration, to be sure – I wanted to be found by mailmen, housewarming partygoers, and future visitors. But when I put those numbers on my fence, I wasn’t wittingly creating a new entry in the database of intentions. Google Street View didn’t exist back then, and the act of placing a street number in public view was a far more “private” declaration. Sure, my address was a matter of record – with a bit of shoe leather, anyone could go down to public records and find out where I lived. But as the world becomes machine readable data, we’re slowly realizing the full power of the word “public.”

In the US and many other places, the “public” has the right to view and record anything that is in sight from a public place – this is the basis for tools like Street View. Step one of Street View was to get the pictures in place – in a few short years, we’ve gotten used to the idea that nearly any place on earth can now be visited as a set of images on Google. But I don’t think we’ve quite thought through what happens when those images turn into data that is “understood” by machines. We’re on the cusp of that awakening. I imagine it’s going to be quite a story.

Update: Given the theme of “turning into data” I was remiss to not mention the concept of “faceprints” in this piece. As addresses are to our home, our faces are to our identity, see this NYT piece for an overview.

 

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  • dbv

    As data is deemed valuable then one way to think
    about it is in terms of the inequality argument. The massive data collectors such
    as Google, Facebook, Twitter and a handful of others belong to the 1% data rich
    club and the remainder which includes most if not all consumers as well as most
    companies are the 99% data poor. If so, the question then becomes “is this a
    good thing?”. Maybe, we’ll just have to be satisfied with trickle-down data!

    • johnbattelle

      I tink over time the worm will turn.

      • dbv

        Consider “my” money (say, $1000) is in the bank and “my” personal data (say, 1gb) is in secure storage. The bank pays me interest (ok, not much these days) for using that money to loan to others. Google et al use my personal data to improve advertising to make money for themselves. Without saying so directly, the offer from them is my personal data in exchange for their “free” service. But, their “free” service is not free because I am paying for it with my personal data (which has a monetary value). Next, does my personal data have a value less than, equal to or greater than the “free” service? But, without my (and billions of others) personal data Google et al would not be in business or certainly would not be the size they are or in a one-sided position of power.

        One way out of this is to re-balance the equation by forcing Google et al to pay for personal data just as banks pay interest. Will this be accomplished by technology or by law?

        • johnbattelle

          Or…by the market and social mores?

          • dbv

            I meant combination of technology/market. Social mores or behavior are more difficult to change unless there was a compelling reason (which there is) to move to something safer (which there isn’t right now) that offers an equivalent service (which there isn’t).

            In fact, I think Microsoft with Bing is in an ideal position to innovate in this area.

          • johnbattelle

            Yes, I wrote about that (Bing) a while back, but traction didn’t happen

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