You can influence the algorithms that now dictate your life

Many choices that people consider their own are actually determined by algorithms from companies like Google or Facebook. 'This situation will worsen unless we empower people with a citizen web', said Dirk Helbing.

Helbing: 'We can be more creative, develop better businesses and create a better world.'(Photo: Sam Remtmeester)
Helbing: 'We can be more creative, develop better businesses and create a better world.'(Photo: Sam Remtmeester)

"We cope with war, climate change, terrorism, financial disasters. The world is not sustainable", said Dirk Helbing, professor of computational social science at ETH Zurich, last week at the TU Delft research exhibition.

"Scientific progress has been slow over the centuries, but now we have big data. There are 700,000 new google searches every minute. Everything we do leaves traces. And all data are analysed by machine learning algorithms. Some people say we will soon have a computer that can solve all of our problems."

Helbing, who is part-time professor of the programme 'Engineering Social Sciences for a Responsible Digital Future' at TU Delft, doesn't share this vision.

'We need citizen science'

"The world is not like a chess game that a computer can win. It is much more complex", he said during his lecture. "We need to combine collective human intelligence with artificial intelligence. In short, we need citizen science."

If we can combine collective human intelligence, big data and artificial intelligence, Helbing foresees a bright future. He bases this partially on the great opportunities the Internet of Things can bring with the huge amount of data that it will unleash.

If this tsunami of data is controlled by wrong forces however, it can also have devastating effects.

'Algorithms determine many of our choices'

"In ten years, 150 billion 'things' will connect with each other and with billions of people. The 'Internet of Things' will generate data volumes that double every 12 hours rather than every 12 months, as is the case now," Helbing wrote last year in a comment in Nature.

"Whoever builds the filters to monetise this information determines what we see. Many choices that people consider their own are already determined by algorithms. Such remote control weakens responsible, self-determined decision-making and thus society too."

With this in mind, Helbing and his research team at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zurich, alongside international partners, started to create a distributed, privacy-preserving 'digital nervous system' called Nervousnet.

'We can make a circular economy'

Nervousnet uses the sensor networks that make up the Internet of Things to build a collective 'data commons'.

"You all have one of these devices of the Internet of Things in your pocket: your smartphone," said Helbing. "It contains sixteen sensors, amongst which an accelerometer, a gyroscope, a barometer and a light sensor. We can use these sensors to measure the world together."

"Nervousnet is the platform for the global open source measurement system. With this system we can make more informed decisions, be more creative, develop better businesses, create a better world. We can even make a circular economy by promoting the reuse of resources using incentives with block chain technology. We can fix the world by 2030."

Nervousnet is resilient to attacks

Inspired by Wikipedia and OpenStreetMap, people can interact with Nervousnet in three ways. They can contribute data, analyse the crowdsourced data sets, and share codes and ideas. Anyone can create data-driven services and products using a generic programming interface.

Nervousnet uses distributed data storage and distributed control, so that it is resilient to attacks and centralised manipulation attempts, Helbing said. And unlike initiatives for the Internet of Things spearheaded by big technology companies, Nervousnet is run as a 'citizen web', built and managed by its users. Users who want to be in control of their lives and not be dictated by algorithms anymore.