MIT Faculty Newsletter  
Vol. XXI No. 5
Summer 2009
A New Commitment to Science and Technology R&D
The Role of Oceans in Climate Change
A New Method for Negotiating
Arms Control Agreements
The Science We Need and the
Needs of Science
System at a Crossroads: Rethinking Infrastructure and Mobility
Energy Transitions and Transformations
Society's Nervous System: A Key to Effective Government, Energy Efficiency, and Public Health
An Alternate Green Initiative
Rotten Apples or a Rotting Barrel: How Not to Understand the Current Financial Crisis
The Way to Sustainability
Making the Web Work for Science
A Note to Secretary of Energy Steven Chu
Budget of the United States Government (2005-2010): Outlays by Selected Agencies
Budget of the United States Government (2009-2014): Outlays by Selected Agencies
Budget of the United States Government (1962-2010): Percentage Distribution of Outlays by Selected Agencies
Printable Version

Society's Nervous System: A Key to Effective Government, Energy Efficiency, and Public Health

Alex Pentland

Mobile phones – and the twenty-first century networking infrastructure supporting them – are one of the few remaining bright spots in today's economic climate. Just as mobile phones have become an indispensable part of our daily lives, they have also emerged as a genuine catalyst for global economic growth.

Worldwide, there are now more than four billion mobile phone subscribers and every day two million new subscribers get phones. At this pace, one billion additional subscribers will be connected to the global economy by the end of next year.

Studies have proven that connecting people with wireless networks plays a major role in the development of poor and underserved communities, just as the Internet has done for more wealthy groups. For the first time in history, the majority of humanity is linked and has a voice.

The most important changes, however, may come from the fact that these same mobile phones are location-aware sensor platforms and their wireless networks support sensors in cars, buses, and homes. As a consequence, our mobile wireless infrastructure can be used to understand the patterns of human behavior, monitor our environments, and plan the development of our society. This functionality is mostly latent at this point, but already these devices are being used to measure population flows into cities and slums, to map the movement of populations during emergencies, to identify neighborhoods where social services are inadequate, and to manage automobile traffic congestion. The ability of mobile phone networks to identify unusual patterns of movement and communication is also how public health officials and disaster relief teams are scanning for outbreaks of diseases like SARS and emergencies such as tidal waves.

Like some world-spanning living organism, wireless traffic systems, security sensors, and especially mobile telephone networks are combining to become intelligent, reactive systems with sensors serving as their eyes and ears. It seems that the human race suddenly has the beginnings of a working nervous system.

For society, the hope is that we can use this new in-depth understanding of individual behavior to increase the efficiency and responsiveness of industry and government. For individuals, the attraction is the possibility of a world where everything is arranged for your convenience – your health checkup is magically scheduled just as you begin to get sick, the bus comes just as you get to the bus stop, and there is never a line of waiting people at city hall.

Unfortunately, this new nervous system is still separate from humanity’s brain. Like a newborn infant, the local reflexes are beginning to work but they are unconnected to the main centers of information and communication. To realize the promise of this social nervous system, mobile networks must merge seamlessly with Internet computing to allow uniform, first-class, anywhere-any device access to the full potential of the world's computing, communications, and sensory resources. The idea of “cloud computing” should begin with mobile wireless sensor and communication networks, and not with physically static computing and Internet resources.

To realize the full potential of integrating mobile devices, wireless sensors, and Internet computing, there are three challenges that must be faced by government, industry, and universities:

(1) We must create open standards and policies that allow users to create and use mobile applications that access the full power of the Internet as easily as today’s Web applications. Funding is needed for research in “mobile cloud computing,” and for translation of these new tools to commercial reality.

(2) The mobile networks are as much a sensor net as a communications net: the location of and state of mobile devices, environmental monitors, and civic infrastructure
(medical, traffic, power, etc.) and similar sensors should be as easily accessible and useful as digital documents are today. To accomplish this, we need a dramatic increase in research into the use of these new sensor networks for civic, environmental, and commercial applications. In particular, basic research focused on using these sensor systems to understand the patterns of human behavior is essential because this understanding will form the bedrock of effective social systems.

(3) To avoid abuse of these new data sources, we must have a “new deal on data” that ensures accountability and data ownership. Current legal statutes are lagging far behind our ability to collect and process data about people; clearly our notions of privacy and ownership of data need to evolve in order to adapt to these new capabilities. Perhaps the first step is to give people ownership of their data, creating what economists know as a “fair market” for the information that will drive this new social nervous system.

If we can successfully address these three challenges, then we will see current systems evolve into an effective nervous system for our society, one that will repay our investment many-fold in terms of better civic services, a greener way of life, and a safer, more healthy population.

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