Quantified Earth and Civilziation

The Internet loves talking about the quantified self (QS) movement these days. There's all sorts of hype about using sensors to collect data about our bodies: steps, what we see, sleep cycles, distance traveled, and many more. Soon we'll start seeing devices that passively track pulse, glucose levels, blood pressure, and other key vitals.

As the QS industry enters an era of hyper competition and innovation, we're witnessing a major breakthrough in our ability to capture data about real people in the real world in real time. This has never been possible until now. Most QS devices cost $100-$300 up front, but don't require any ongoing expenses. As hardware costs continue to plummet, and as the cost of capturing data on an going basis has been reduced to nothing, we are capturing vastly more data about ourselves than ever before.

But there's all kinds of other data that we could crowd source as a society. Just imagine if every smartphone included a digital thermometer and humidity sensor. Our phones could capture weather data hourly and send it anonymously to the National Weather Service. Data scientists and weather experts would use this wealth of new data to develop more accurate forecasting models. Everyone would benefit.

What if our phones had even a rudimentary ability to detect certain compounds (ie allergens) in the air? The benefits would be enormous. But we're not there just yet. Props to Samsung for including a thermometer, humidity sensor, and barometer in the Galaxy S4. These are nice additions. Apple, please take note.

Over the course of my lifetime, we'll quantify earth (QE). In time, most of the 7 billion people on Earth will passively collect data about their local environment and share it. We'll also quantify civilization (QC). Like modern airplanes and expensive manufacturing equipment, every significant asset will monitor itself: vehicles, buildings, bridges, roads, and household appliances such as refrigerators, washers/driers, ACs/heaters, and many others. As we quantify our world, we'll learn about it in ways that were never before feasible. With that knowledge, we'll be able to develop better tools and work with our environment as effectively as possible.

Unfortunately, we won't see as much startup innovation in these sectors as we're seeing in the QS industry today. These are already established industries with extremely high barriers to entry, particularly around manufacturing and distribution. There's nothing stopping the existing giants from adopting and integrating sensors into their existing products. It'll be exciting to see what we learn about the world as we quantify it. Data is the purest means we have to challenge our biased assumptions about the world.

Props to IBM for recognizing all of this 5 years ago and implementing the "Smarter Planet" strategy. We can't make our planet any smarter if we don't understand it in the first place.