These days, many of us in consumer and enterprise tech companies are working on predictive systems that provide modest but valuable augmentation of human intelligence and business processes. I think this scale of ambition is a good fit for the current state of the art in machine learning and probabilistic inference. Think personal assistants like Siri or Google Now, predictive analytics in the enterprise for churn detection and ad campaign targeting, and personalized news apps like Prismatic.
But I think that the long term story is much more exciting, and much further from our experience with synthetic intelligence to date. I believe that we are on the path to building the equivalent of global-scale nervous systems. I’m thinking Gaia’s brain: distributed but unified intelligences that gather data from sensors all over the world, and that synthesize those data streams to perceive the overall state of the planet as naturally as we perceive with our own sensory systems. This isn’t just big data–this is big inference.
To make this idea of a global intelligence more concrete, consider the startup Premise. As a first step toward the kind of perceptual systems that I am talking about, Premise is using various signals from the public internet as a set of massively distributed sensory organs, and then leveraging this information to develop more informative economic indexes.
Now consider what other problems such systems could solve in the coming decades. We could gain a true understanding of the climate system on a granular but global level. We could track and coordinate every vehicle on the planet, to improve energy efficiency and optimize scheduling to all but eliminate traffic jams. Or moving from vehicles to parts and materials, we could create and manage truly robust supply chains that maintain efficiency and resilience in the face of unexpected events. The possibilities go on, and are truly awesome.
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