Rectifying the Data Science Identity Crisis Through Science Fiction
By Nedim Halıcıoğlu
Never before in the history of our time have we been able to create and capture more information. Our ability to understand and communicate what this information means, however, is still in its infancy. This infancy has already been highlighted with amazing feats of ingenuity in the science and medical fields, as well as in the technology sector with the growing success of data-based companies. There is also a growing trend of criticism of how companies and institutions use the data they collect. It comes down to this: data science may be having an identity crisis and we may find the solution in science fiction.
The Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma is the most recent exposé to reveal just how much information technology companies are gathering, and how they are using the data they collect to generate revenue. This film has renewed an emphasis on “data privacy” and is shedding light on ways that data is being collected and used, many of which are a surprise to the average person.
Privacy concerns are real. Data breaches can wreak havoc on your financial situation or your medical insurance status. There are tangible consequences, not to mention the more intangible societal consequences, illustrated in The Social Dilemma.
Many data science commentators rush to point out these concerns; however, they fail to keep the long-term, big picture in mind as they proscribe the use of data as a revenue model.
More often than not, the actual goal of data science is forgotten — and perhaps not defined to begin with. What do we want to be able to do with all of this information? What kind of society do we want to build? Do we even have a vision of our data-based utopia any more?
Despite the clichés, an easy place to look for inspiration is Star Trek. It is particularly interesting, as a thought experiment, to think about the Starship’s “Computer.” The Star Trek “Computer” is always listening and has virtually infallible natural language processing abilities. It knows where everyone is at all times, keeps track of an almost unfathomable number of data sets, and can produce requested information almost instantly. But no one ever seems to mind that it is tracking people’s locations. No one complains that it knows everyone’s health condition. In fact, these are some of the most useful assets of the Star Trek “Computer.”
Aside from the obvious technological issues, the questions that should be asked are these: How can we achieve something similar? Do we even want to? Would it be advantageous to not think of “ownership” of data, but rather as all data (even private) being for the common good? How do we stop exploitation of that data?
While our current situation leads us to ask these questions, maybe we need to rethink the actual goal of our pursuits. Or perhaps we should realize that the goal is a much broader one. It is not just that we want the amazing technology of the “Computer.” It is that we also want society to have the noble aims of the Star Trek world — a society not overly obsessed with image or wealth, but rather with a unifying goal of bettering civilization for as many people and species as possible.
Maybe we are a few hundred years away from both the technological and societal advances we need in order to live in a world like that of the various Star Trek series. But let’s not lose sight of the inspiration we can continue to draw from it. As we confront the real-world concerns we face regarding data usage, we need to carefully craft solutions that keep our goals in mind, once we can articulate what they are. We will be challenged with creating solutions to these problems. And we must, as a community, rise to the challenges without giving up on our goals. It may be a tall order, but this community is up for it. And we at the Data Science Alliance are here to help.
Nedim Halıcıoğlu is a member of the Data Science Alliance board of directors. Not many people who understand cognitive neuroscience become attorneys, and not many attorneys become founders. Nedim has defied the odds. Comfortable wearing both the hats of investor and entrepreneur, Ned has founded several startups, and evaluated the prospects of hundreds more. With the head of a researcher and the heart of a founder, Ned has an eye for finding and elevating talent, and brings an attorney’s acuity to the companies he shepherds. Having conducted research and practiced medical litigation, he applies his understanding of each to evaluating early stage companies. Ned currently handles investment strategies for Keshif Ventures, LLC and serves on the board of NotesFirst, Inc, a state-of-the-art medical record app bringing access to underserved communities and emerging markets around the world.