Social Machinery

Social Machines … not a very good title for what is likely to become a very important topic which will affect all of us.

‘Social Machines’, if you don’t know, is the term used for how technology can learn and support us better (or potentially to control us, some fear). For instance, technologies such as mobile phones, social media and wearable IT all capture data which can be used in many ways – for good or bad. We need to plan now for their use and their control, including how we ensure everyone’s privacy is protected.

You will probably be using social networks like Facebook and Twitter, where people not only interact socially but share experiences and solve problems. Social machines take this a step further, using software tools and networks of computers which link people to collaborate and co-create. They allow a large number of people to give a small amount of time or data to create a big effect, so allowing computing to adopt human traits to make judgements.

In the past we’ve built systems and collected data manually, for example by using surveys. Doing this at scale, such as gathering and analysing global weather data for forecasting, is complex and expensive and needs some very large computers. But web applications run on phones are free and can source data from the public for nothing. This sort of crowd-sourcing is nearly always more accurate (and quicker) than consulting experts. Weather, the economy, traffic, trends, news, health can all be tracked, based on real time information captured from social interaction, giving a faster, more accurate and more shareable means to predict and adapt. See Galaxy Zoo for example:

Social machines also have many commercial applications: in future you may walk past an electronic bill-board in the street and it will recognise your face, match it to your on-line shopping habits and leisure interests, and there and then present you with adverts relevant to you and your location. Clever stuff!

In my view this should not scare us, provided we remain in control, choosing whether and how to participate and what data to share. This means we all need a deeper understanding of the digital world beyond a grasp of the IT. Its like a driving a car.. you really don’t need to know what is under the bonnet to drive safely, but you cant drive safely is all you know is how the engine works.

Done well, these social machines can help with education, economic growth, employment, health and social care. The trick in the digital world is to ensure that we have developed our own understanding and new skills to protect our privacy (and then teach these to our children). At the moment too many people are still falling for basic phishing attacks.


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