The Allternet

(c) 2014 Lubna Dajani

What I argue is that if I’m going to be held accountable for my actions that I should be allowed to record… my actions. Especially if somebody else is keeping a record of my actions.
– Dr. Steve Mann.

Introduction: The ubiquitous Web and the “Allternet”
Like so many of us, I have moved everything I can to the cloud, from my pictures and music to my money; it’s all “safely” stored out there somewhere in cyberspace and it’s readily accessible to me, and to the people I chose to share with, from anywhere at any time. Google has my calendar and mail; Amazon has my shopping cart; and Facebook has my friends. I rarely use paper anymore; I manage all my investments and banking online. I pay my bills and check my daughters’ report cards online. I hardly carry cash; nearly everything I buy is paid for by credit card, PayPal, or my mobile wallet where available. I ping my friends on social media when I want to say “hi”, and my bracelet tracks my workouts and sleeping patterns. This new state of being where all things, people, and places are connected and at all times is pervasive, disruptive, exciting and scary all at the same time.

A decade ago, the viability of mobile as a platform was being fiercely debated, and ten years before that, fewer people believed businesses would ever need to have “a website”. Today, many businesses are exclusively online; and an increasingly large number of people would rather lose their wallet than their phone. It won’t be long before we no longer need a wallet, briefcase, music player, or much else for that matter; only internet access in some form.

We are indeed at the genesis of a new era in human history; one where new cities and economic power centers are emerging in countries and places many people today don’t even know exist, and the “norm” of our everyday life will be redefined as technology is woven into the fabric of our everyday life.

Think about it for a minute, it was not that long ago when you would have been considered paranoid if you thought that you were being watched. Today you are considered naive or maybe even ignorant, if you think that you are not. Surveillance cameras are on every street corner and taking a picture is as easy as looking at something and saying “ok glass, take picture.” Soon enough you will simply have to think it and the picture will be taken. Such technologies already exist where by thinking a command, it is simply executed. 5 years ago this would have been science fiction, but not today!

This transformative trend towards ubiquitous access to the internet where everything and everyone are connected is not unique to the western or developed world. It is everywhere and cuts across geographies, cultures, genders, economic and social classes. In fact, in many developing countries the only access to the internet is via mobile devices, the same devices on which the government issued identity credentials are stored and maintained. In the construct of ubiquitous Web, everything and everyone can and will be digitally addressable and accountable, anywhere at any time. With every passing day, people, places, and products are becoming more and more connected and digitally interdependent. This is where the cloud, big data, and the Internet of Things come to play. This is what I call the “Allternet” age where all people, products and places are connected and addressable at any instant in time. This is the beginning of a new chapter in history, where technology is seamlessly humanized into everyday life.

Future Cities
The democratization of innovation is making it easy for people to be anywhere they want to be physically, while having a digital presence elsewhere in virtual and simulated environments, seeding new economies and cultures. Cities, by definition, have inherent advantages for experimentation; much like complimentary ecosystems for research and development. Cities are also where the young converge to socialize, co-create, and experiment across physical, simulated, and blended environments and realities. You can observe this trend emerging in cities all around the world. According to McKinsey research, more than 50% of the world’s population today lives in cities, and in the next 13 years 600 cities around the world will dominate with 65% of the global GDP growth. Many of these cities may not be on anyone’s radar screen or even on the map today; and will emerge seemingly from nothing – think Vegas, Dubai, Doha and more recently Nairobi. Many of the new cities will come from the developing world where new networks and technology infrastructure can be built without the constraints of historic structures or legacy systems. Climate change, together with people’s awareness and desire to live a healthier lifestyle, will also play a role in attracting people to places that are naturally beautiful and resource rich, especially given that innovation and collaboration can happen anywhere at any time as we are consciously connected and within reach at all times.

Today there are initiatives with significant investments, both public and private, behind smart buildings and smart cities that will redefine the way we interact with each other and with our environments. Buildings will become sensing, smart, and responsive to their inhabitance and the environment. Don’t be surprised if building façades become interactive and offering content and services that are contextually aware and tailored to their revolving audiences. Imagine the magnitude and implications of data and intelligence that will likely be generated and processed

It’s a whole new world: The cloud and big data
Traditionally data is gathered from internal sources, or purchased from public sources and research firms. In today’s Internet of Things, wireless sensors connected to the internet are embedded in all sorts of physical objects—from bridges to pacemakers to light fixtures, drones, and even coffee makers. When physical objects and spaces can sense and communicate with their environments and each other, extraordinary amounts of minable data is generated. The the fiber of our being is redefined with digital elements ingrained within and throughout; adding a whole new dimension to our world, our understanding of it, and of ourselves.

In fact, much of our activity is already traceable. When you use your credit card, pass through a toll, connect to Wi-Fi, download an app, visit a website, walk around a mall, share a photo, or make a post; the content of your transactions, as well as detailed metadata about your location and behavioral patterns are being generated, captured, and analyzed. This rather personal data is then used to tailor offers and serve you ads and content that is contextually relevant to not only your needs, preferences and demography but also to your location, circumstance, spending habits and behavioral patterns.

Let’s not forget about all the surveillance cameras backed with powerful computer vision and facial recognition tools or the countless wearable devices that are hitting the market today, most notably Glass and the biometric gadgets like fitness bracelets, heart monitors, and even smart fabrics – all these capture and generate data not only about your behavior or whereabouts, but also your body’s physiology at the time. So where does all this data go? Who owns it? Who can access it? It is really needed or wanted? Who is benefiting and who is profiting from it? And what say if any do you have in it?

In fact, we are already highly dependent on being digitally connected. Can you imagine the state of chaos we’d be in if we wake up tomorrow morning to find that the internet had gone dark and ‘the cloud” has vaporized? It’s practically unfathomable. Life as we know it would come to a screeching halt. So, what happens to all this data? How will this wealth of information and knowledge be governed, managed, and protected? To whom and to what extent will access be granted? What role will corporates, governments and local municipalities play? What will the social, economic, and political implications be? And how will we maintain our individuality, protect our identity, and maintain control over our own lives? How will we strike a balance in this new world order? And where will you, the individual, fit into this equation? More importantly, where do you want to fit in and what are you doing about it?

Control the Data…. Control the Power! BIG DATA
Today, the Internet, powered by connected devices around the globe, helps us organize discourses about society, the economy, and local politics. It is also the primary communications platform of the future where our daily lives are echoed and recorded. We will no longer exist in the dimensions of time and physical space but also in cyberspace.

Connectedness together with open-access can pry away filters superimposed by controlled media and propaganda; giving people the freedom to actively engage and experience each other firsthand, creating newfound understanding, compassion and affinity for each other and the world we live in.

Today much of what we do is recorded somewhere by someone (particularly the NSA). In the Allternet future, everything and every action will be captured, geo-coded, time-stamped, and recorded in real time creating an expansive repository of data that can be mined for anything from behavioral patterns to cause and effect.

Imagine the wealth of knowledge about ourselves, our environment, and the world that we could discern from the data when every single human action is recorded, from where we are to what we consume, what we are doing, how, when and with whom; from birth to death. This will result in an explosive rate of advancement across every field of study and especially in the areas of Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts,and Math (STEAM). The Allternet era will be marked with transformative learnings and innovations on every level.

As with all disruptive technologies and innovations, there is always a dark side, a potential blowback. Much of our daily lives are mirrored on the cloud, hosted on platforms luring us with “free service” but with no real service level agreements (SLAs) associated. We are further subject to complicated user-agreements that most of us agree to without reading, full of legalese way too complicated to for most of us to understand and way long to read and attempt to comprehend, or understand what we are agreeing to give in return for that free access; when all we wanted is quick Wi-Fi access to the very same internet that is leaving us vulnerable and exposed.

Have you noticed how much your eyeballs and keystrokes are being tracked and predicted by marketers? Indeed, we are already bombarded with targeted ads and offers to influence purchases and lure spending based on searches we do or sites we visit. This is evident by the amount and speed with which our behavioral patterns are reflected to the type of ads and content that we are served. And when was the last time you had any say in whether you leave cookies behind tracing your every move? Did you even know that you have an option to turn that off? And even if you did want to have a say, the interfaces are so complicated you would have to be techno geeks to know how to stop “them” from tracking and using your own data to manipulate your spending to their profit. Think about it, how often do you search for a product on the web only to find yourself getting ads for it, often for months to come and even after you are no longer in the market? While when done right, targeting can be convenient and effective, it is almost spooky and often annoying if not intrusive to say the least. Are we already beyond the point where we as individuals can control access and use of data about what we ate for breakfast or which team we root for?

In parallel, the current political unrest in so many parts of the world, combined with the perceived threat of terrorism lurking around every corner is creating a state of fear. Historically, when fearful, people are willing to give up so much of their freedom and privacy in the name of “security” leaving us vulnerable to social, political and economic oppression. We can see the effects of this even here in the United States of America. Think about how much privacy and freedom Americans have come to give up in the name of safety and national security since September 11. The power and access that the NSA has over Americans today would have been unthinkable and deemed a threat to our Constitution before the fear of terrorism took hold.

The challenge and opportunity here is in being able to benefit from the technological and scientific advancements while maintaining autonomy and personal freedom. To that end I find the words of one of our founding fathers echoing in my head:

“They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.” – Benjamin Franklin, Memoirs of the life & writings of Benjamin Franklin

In its most basic form ‘democracy’ means ‘rule of the people’, not ‘rule of the state’ or of any other minority. eDemocracy means using 21st century information and communications technology to promote democracy; in which all adult citizens are presumed to be eligible to participate equally in the proposal, development and creation of laws.

eDemocracy encompasses social, economic and cultural conditions that enable the free and equal practice of political self-determination. Disruptive technologies can make eDemocracy possible, responsive, measurable, and effective.

In theory, eDemocracy enables transparency and accountability in a safe and secure environment where people feel free to openly share their views and opinions without fear of prosecution. As such they will be more actively engaged on both the local as well as global levels.

Recently there has been significant growth in the adoption of eDemocracy as public- and private-sector platforms provide an avenue to citizen engagement while offering access to the transparent information citizens have come to expect. For instance: Cellphone voting has helped decide the future of downtown London Ontario; Canada as well as several American cities are embracing apps that let communities interact with local government, engaging in two-way dialogues; the city of Philadelphia uses an app that lets people directly communicate their concerns and requests via social media; . when citizens in Asheville, North Carolina want to report a streetlight failure or other problem, they can do so using a phone app developed for their community.

Perhaps what may be most impactful about eDemocracy is that it has the potential to give our youth, who are, by today’s rule, too young to vote, a platform from which they can express themselves and be heard. Today’s connected youth are tomorrow’s leaders; and they are far more aware, interested, and actively engaged in social, economic, environmental, and political conditions than ever before on both domestic and international levels.

However, eDemocracy does not come without challenges. Aside from hostile political environments, a great hurdle in implementing eDemocracy is the matter of ensuring security in internet voting systems. Viruses and malware could be used to block or redirect citizens’ votes on matters of great importance; as long as that threat remains, eDemocracy will be diffused throughout society.

For eDemocracy to work, the platforms must inherently nurture individuality, cultivate innovation, ensure digital freedom and personal identity not only against malicious criminal minds and digital hackers, but equally against corruption and citizen exploitation by both governments and corporates driven by the temptations of economic gain and world-domination.

“A society with oversight-only is an oversight on our part.” – Dr. Steve Mann.

eHealth and the Allternet
The benefits and reach of connectedness is all encompassing. Last year the FCC announced a plan to bring not only texting, but photo, video, and data support within five to ten years in what is being called the Next Generation 911 (NG911) service. Imagine a car accident. With NG911, anyone at the site could send pictures of the scene and any injuries to 911, giving EMTs a chance to assess injuries on site and send critical information back to the hospital, including on-site scans and diagnostic information, potentially making the difference between life and death.

Further, the consumer market currently offers an array of telehealth products embedded with biomedical sensors ranging from wristbands, watches and even products implanted within the body. These devices can track and record a person’s activities as well as vital signs throughout the day and night. Coupled with a rich suite of mobile apps and cloud-based services that analyze and model the data, these advances represent the beginning of new breakthroughs in all aspects of health and medical services.

These wearables can not only improve the quality of life but are already being used to save human life, particularly for the elderly and disabled. For example, a patient wearing a 24-hour cardiac monitoring device experiences a cardiac event at home; the device would then automatically signal the Next Generation 911 system. Today, residents and doctors at University Hospital’s division of neurological surgery are using smartphone cameras to transmit images of X-rays, MRIs and computer axial tomography scans of patients for consultation. The research concluded that diagnoses made from phone images were identical to those made in the hospital room, which increases resident supervision and patient safety, while saving patients’ time and money. These technologies are also being used to enable highly specialized doctors to work in real-time with patients and medical staff located in areas unattainable in a timely manner. The technology, namely wearable image sensors and life logging applications, are also proving to be effective in the treatment of dementia, Alzheimer’s, and other age related diseases.

Crowdsourcing: The New Democracy?
Crowdsourcing is the practice of soliciting contributions for funding services, content or anything else for that matter, primarily from the online community. The term was coined in 2005 by Jeff Howe and Mark Robinson editors of Wired Magazine and later defined by Daren Brabham in 2008 as “on-line, distributed problem-solving and production model”. Today, crowdsourcing is successfully used by startups as an alternative and affordable funding and fueling source. People contribute their money or resources to get projects off the ground, and it works. It is highly engaging and effective. The concept is being expanded to include crowdsourcing everything; design ideas, authoring a story, defining a new policy, gathering facts, capturing a fugitive, saving a life.

The Cyborg Being
Digital communication, the building block of the internet, works on electrical currents, as does the neural network that makes up your brain. It is logical that at some point the human mind and the machine will become intertwined, making us something like a Cyborg.

Dr. Steve Mann, a professor at the University of Toronto, Faculty of Applied Science and Engineering, known as “the world’s first Cyborg”, points out that “as we enter the ‘cyborg age’ of wearable computing we’re going to see a new kind of intelligence emerge: Humanistic Intelligence” [“The Encyclopedia of Human-Computer Interaction, 2nd Ed.” Aarhus, Denmark, 2012, The Interaction Design Foundation].

In his paper entitled “Humanistic Intelligence: ‘WearComp’ as a new framework and application for intelligent signal processing” Dr. Mann proposed what he called “Humanistic Intelligence [HI]” as a new signal processing framework in which the processing apparatus is inextricably intertwined with the natural capabilities of our human body and mind. Rather than trying to emulate human intelligence, HI recognizes that the human brain is perhaps the best neural network of its kind, and that there are many new signal processing applications within the domain of personal technologies that can make use of this excellent but often overlooked processor.”

He goes on to explain that “Devices embodying humanistic intelligence are not merely intelligent signal processors that a user might wear or carry in close proximity to the body, but instead, are devices that turn the user into part of an intelligent control system where the user becomes an integral part of the feedback loop.”

In his blog post entitled “Identity, Privacy & Security by ReDesign”, Dr. Mann presents a brilliant yet simple scenario where “Allan, a blind man, has an EyeBorg Implantable Camera System (Canadian Patent 2313693). It transmits live video to the “Seeing-Eye People” collective comprised of friends, relatives, and volunteers who take turns to help him see by remotely viewing his video and talking in his telephone earpiece to describe what’s in his environment. His wife is confined to a hospital bed and unable to walk, but enjoys “walking” by seeing through his eyes as he walks around the neighborhood.

This example demonstrates how wearable technology and crowd sourced input, eyesight in this case, are essentially giving a blind man the benefit of sight and the ability to navigate his environment, while also enabling his family and friends to remotely share in his experiences and the environment that he is in.

Replacing the Umbilical Cord with a Digital One

“From May 2014, throughout Europe every unborn child will be obliged to receive a subcutaneous RFID chip. The chip in question will be provided with an information sheet on the newborn. This chip will also contain a powerful GPS sensor…”

When this circulated around social media late 2013, it triggered a harsh emotional reaction, even though there were no reports confirming these claims in any credible news publication. Still, if the date was changed from May 2014 to, say, May 2020 would it have generated outrage or even disbelief among us? Probably not; in fact it is not such a far fetched idea.. Today most parents give their school children mobile phones so that they can have constant access to their children and know their whereabouts. Back in 1998, Kevin Warwick, a professor of cybernetics at Reading University outside of London, implanted a chip into his arm as an experiment to see if Warwick’s computer could wirelessly track his whereabouts within the university’s building. Last week, I had a chip implanted in my dog, Parker, in the event she is lost (which of course will never happen).

Today the concept of chip-enhanced people is being brought into the everyday world. For example, experiments are being conducted with similar microchips that can be encoded with bits of information and implanted in humans under a layer of skin. When scanned by a nearby handheld reader, the embedded chip yields data, for example an ID number, that links to a computer database file containing more detailed information. As another example, there are pill shaped chipsets that, once swallowed by a patient, can transmit data and images from within for use in diagnosis and treatment of diseases.

Such vast amounts of health related data can greatly advance medical science while overall improving quality of life. The challenge here will be to strike a balance between harvesting knowledge and ensuring patient privacy and anonymity such that access to our data, medical records in this case, is at the patient’s discretion and not used as a means to judge or discriminate.

Glass and Smart Things
How we interpret, process and respond to life is greatly dependent on how we see things. While smart Glass has been in the making for several decades, it has now reached critical mass. The applications of sight related technologies will be pivotal enablers in the future Allternet.

In the near future, Glass and smart displays will be everywhere: automobiles, windows, doors, walls, mirrors, practically any surface. They will have open processing capabilities supporting real time 3D visual content rendering and augmented reality (AR), with embedded secure execution capabilities, and user definable personalization and attributes.

A person looking through will be able to see a contextually mediated view of their environment as it relates to them at that instant. Imagine taking a tour of the Acropolis; you may want to see it as it is today, share your view with someone at home, or trigger an augmented view of what it may have been like in 450 B.C.. In the future Allternet, everything will have an accessible digital representation and a record of interactions not only in the present moment but also through time and space.

Similarly, connected-car technologies and services together with self-driving capabilities will be game changers in the Allternet future. Automobiles will no longer be simply vessels within which people are physically transported; they will also be an instrumental part of any city’s communication infrastructure; from managing traffic to delivering content. While some people will always continue to be fully immersed in the driving experience, others may choose to use their time differently, perhaps consuming digital content; participating in an architecture lecture that references landmark buildings as they pass by; playing a mediated reality game that blends in the physical world around them; or perhaps enjoying a drive-by-shopping experience. “Drive-buy” shoppers will be able not only see the item in the window, but perhaps see them in their favorite colors or with offers and specials augmented onto the storefront as they are looking at it through a smart glass. I for one love the thrill of driving, but there is always a time when I wish my car could simply drive itself. Soon enough self-driving will become a mandatory safety feature in automobiles.

The Allternet Future
In the All-ternet age, everything will have an IP address and will be part of the digital grid making the Allternet as fundamental as the atmosphere around us. The Allternet will add a digital dimension to our lives within which our own senses, emotions, and spirituality are expressed and mobilized. Today people are already expressing their sentiment, intent, and aspiration as well as capturing their life logs and executing transactions online. As more and more of this data is stored and mined, profoundly powerful knowledge and insights can be harnessed to an extent never before conceivable.

In the Allternet future, everyday life will be defined by a blended reality. A person may be present in one place in the physical world, but in any number of places in the digital realm at any given instance in time. Our personal identity will become a compound of our physical and digital being. As the limitation of physical boundaries is diminished, people from around the world will enjoy closer and more intimate relationships and shared experiences. It will not be long before people have no firsthand experience with life before the internet and it would be hard to imagine how real life could have existed without it. Will the Allternet emerge as the truth liberator and great social equalizer or will it be the ever tightening noose and a piercing social demoralizer?

When people are connected on such a personal level, they are free to form their own views and opinions on what is happening around the world; diluting the power of controlled media and political propaganda. By the same means, the same technology can be used to violate people’s right to some form of privacy. The activities of the National Security Agency (NSA) have shown what opportunities the digital world offers for snooping entities, both private and governmental. The potential ability to listen in on the private conversations of heads of foreign states is an example of just that. The very same technologies that connect us on a personal level and are helping us make quantum leaps in scientific advances are also making it possible for law enforcement officials to sift through heaps of data to discern “alleged” or would-be perpetrators. The government is there to protect the interest of the people and must be able to guarantee, where appropriate, that online communications are secure and that they do not violate peoples’ privacy. This is, of course, especially important when considering electronic voting, when integrity and fairness are fundamental. The authentication mechanisms employed must be able to prevent ballot rigging or the threat thereof.

This is a very real threat to the freedom we hold so dear. Many are already questioning what this sort of technology may do to our sense of personal privacy and liberty when it is in the wrong hands. If your child is trackable by you, does this in turn mean that other people will be able to track him or her as well? It is in fact critical that we take extra care to ensure that governance, control and authentication of the digital realm are kept sacred. One option would be to instate an open and crowd sourced approach to establishing and maintaining policy, authentication, and measurement frameworks. We must not fall into the trap of the “Big Brother” scenario in which data is centrally controlled by the few, giving them power without transparency or accountability.

Those of us living in democracies are confronted with two interconnected realities: 1) our laws must provide us with personal safeguards to preserve our individual privacy and freedom and 2) our technological capabilities through global telecommunications provides the means to access personal digital data anytime and anywhere.

Those who will control the data will inevitably control the power. It is critical that we ensure a world where a balance is achieved where people are able to participate while maintaining authenticity, privacy and ultimate control over what, when, and how their data is shared.

Our personal wellbeing and happiness is fully intertwined with our digital wellbeing. If your identity is compromised for whatever reason your physical life will be hugely impacted. If you have ever been a victim of identity theft you would know exactly what I’m talking about. Suddenly your credit cards don’t work, your bank account is empty and you are shut out of your own world. This is not limited to identity theft. A case of mistaken identity can be just as bad or worse. If power is controlled by the few – namely governments and big corporations – you may find yourself living in a system where you are guilty until proven innocent.

I therefore cannot stress enough how critical it is that we take special care to ensure that our digital identities are secure and that security mechanisms are in place to ensure the individual’s active participation in the authentication process

We are indeed at a tipping point, a genesis of a new civilization, a new chapter in the life of humanity. We, the people, each and every one of us individually and collectively, have the power to shape our future, possibly for the first time. The challenging part will be figuring out how to maintain balance among privacy and safety, security and profit.

We do know that the roles and relationships between governments, corporations, people and the environment within which we exist will be first shaped within cities because it is here where innovation, money and people, especially the young early adopters and trend setters congregate.

While I am what you might call an eternal optimist, I recognize the duality of technology and its applications. As it undoubtedly un-tethers us from restrictions in time and space, it can potentially bring an invasion of privacy or allow “Big Brother” to keep tabs on us to an unbearable extend. Or worse lead us to a future where we the people are merely fuel and processing power to an alternate world.

The good news is that with all the knowledge, wisdom, and one-to-one connections we have with each other, now more than ever, we the people are in a position to influence our future like we never have before. If for no other reason than the fact that for the first time in human history each and every one of us today has a voice, and one that can be heard by all if we choose to use it and if we choose to listen.

In fact, I am convinced that we are finally in a position to lift the economic bottom, and eradicate hunger and much of the unnecessary suffering in the world by leveraging the platform that the Allternet provides us. For the first time in our history, we the people all around the world can have the means to share, learn, and know one another.

I invite you all to join me in redefining our success metrics from short term returns and quarterly earnings to a value creation based model, where success is measured by not only profit but impact as we embark on a quest to transform suffering into prosperity and wellbeing.

 – Lubna Dajani, 2014