Society

The price of predicting your future is falling fast

The falling price of decoding our DNA promises to change humanity with an ‘explosion’ of new information about ourselves, says computer visionary

Digital futurist and visiting Professor at the MIT Media Lab, Hossein Rahnama, says we stand on the threshold of a new Golden Age of information.


How could knowing your individual genetic code change our future?
Our gene sequence is an incredibly private, sensitive set of data – it’s also the most accurate form of identity available about us. Just 20 years ago, genome editing and gene sequencing was a very expensive process. Now you can do gene sequencing for less than $5,000. If the barriers to entry continue to fall, it will allow more people to safely and securely access their sequence. We can only imagine the potential impact.

My own hypothesis is that this will open up a huge amount of value, similar to when the internet first exploded. Our ability to read complex biological patterns will multiply. Think about the prediction of diseases, of the substances or food or environmental factors that may have an impact on your health.

The two fields combined will open up new business models – from security to encryption to cybersecurity – all the way to the next generation of preventive and predictive health research.

How do you see that leap being made?
From the late 1980’s to the 2000’s, the internet was similar in its format and audience to a research lab. Then all of a sudden, it became a uniform language and communication channel around the world. We will see extraordinary things when the same people using it, billions of them, have access to AI and data science with predictive capabilities.

When these programs are no longer tools in the hands of government, or research labs, we’re are going to see some unique things coming into the market. We are at the beginning of a ‘Golden Age’ of technology. But the true Golden Age will be when regular people can create value with this information.

Hossein Rahnama, CEO of Flybits

How do we ensure our information remains private and in the right hands?
When we look at identity now, we think about a synthesised identity. It’s my name, my social profile, my digital footprint, my viewpoint on different subjects. That is my true identity and a lot of it can be mined through the internet, both through secure repositories and public repositories. The challenge we have is that currently, a lot of data is being stored and owned by external and centralised organisations, such as Google, Facebook or Twitter.

If I go and leave my assets with a bank, they are mine. That is not happening with online identity now. If you look at the disclaimers when you are setting up profiles with these big providers, you are essentially handing over your identity to them. From a regulation and governance perspective, the EU doesn’t want an American company like Google to own the identity of their citizens. Consumers and customers are beginning to understand this means a misuse of their identity and invasive, targeted adverts. Understandably, we want to control what we see and when we see it.

This is where the true value of blockchain comes in, in which we could store our own information in a distributed ledger, organised by a trusted community. If my identity is aggregation of a lot of data from different repositories; from my email provider, from my carrier cell phone provider, from Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, I should have a key to unlock that data. It’s mine.

How quickly do you see mankind’s technological future developing?
The amount of information that we as human beings have created over the past two years is equivalent to the whole knowledge base that the human race has created since the beginning of civilisation. There are a number of factors behind this leap. One – it is becoming cheaper to store this data. Second, our power – Moore’s law has successfully predicted that every two years we have doubled our processing power. The third factor is digital literacy and the ubiquitous use of smart-devices, which has accelerated due to globalisation. Now the ingredients have all come together and that’s why you suddenly see this massive exponential growth in innovation.

How can we all think big?
I have to thank my mentors, because they helped me focus on ‘wins’ rather than ‘the fear of losing’. Although it’s sometimes a cliché to differentiate these, it’s a completely different mind-set. You can see this impact in research or venture capital ecosystems, in which the funds are primarily being assessed on the criteria of not losing. In parts of Silicon Valley the mind-set is: ‘How can I think big? How can I go from ideation all the way to implementation?’.

The evolution of our entrepreneurial culture and millennial cultures has been reframing failure as a stepping stone towards the next success. The social aspect of this culture change can be seen in how we used to conduct research up until the 1980’s. We basically locked people down in research labs all day and created silos. Whereas if you think about the new social physics and dynamics, in which silos are disappearing, there is a wonderful cross-pollination. This information flow has played a key role in the technology revolution we’ve seen over the past few years.

One of our earliest records of identity. Fingerprints taken by William James Herschel, 1859-1860

How do you ‘decouple’ from all that’s around you? Is it a skill you can teach?
I wish that I could do it more. If you can accommodate for those zen states, those ‘me’ times to really think deep – those moments in life are extremely important. Often the best ideas appear when we didn’t plan for them, when you connect with your environment more effectively.

If all of us worked out how to find time, five or 10 minutes every day, that would be invaluable. Idle time is a skill that a lot of us should re-learn.

Our parents and grandparents may have social communication skills that have been lost in the wake of innovation. We are becoming too distracted by the digital world and need to find the time to reconnect and reflect. If we can accomplish that, we bring the best of the two worlds together.


Hossein Rahnama, is founder and CEO of Flybits and co-Founder and Director of Research at Ryerson University Digital Media Zone.