Science journalist discusses lack of privacy

Jacob Ward, editor in chief of Popular Science magazine, examined how data-shar- ing technology will revolutionize business models by reducing privacy.
Jacob Ward, editor in chief of Popular Science magazine, examined how data-shar- ing technology will revolutionize business models by reducing privacy. Photo by Jennifer Cheung .

Society has entered an age in which data is taking over and privacy is becoming increasingly less important, according to Jacob Ward, the editor in chief of Popular Science magazine.

At a talk attended by roughly 30 students on Wednesday afternoon, Ward discussed today’s innovations in data-based technology, which is becoming a prominent fixture in every aspect of life from location services to health care. He said privacy is becoming unimportant as people are increasingly more willing to share their information.

“In the future, our children are going to have weirder and weirder perspectives on privacy, giving their information away in ways that are changing everything,” Ward said.

Ward said software innovation for phones and computers is becoming dependent on the amount of data that is shared instead of the actual sophistication of the technology.

A team of five universities is currently working on developing the concept of “machine vision,” which would enable devices to replicate the same mechanisms that allow humans to recognize faces and objects and is based on data technology, he said. Ward said these devices will be able to identify the locations in which pictures were taken based on pixel data and to accept text queries describing a person and return relevant data in the form of photographs.

“Someone’s vacation photo will have the Boston bomber in the background,” Ward said, “and the technology will be able to detect that just based on pixel data.”

Ward said he believes that the “demise of privacy” and the “incredibly granular rise of data” will create a new market that will change business models and human behavior generally — for example, data sharing could prompt supermarket patrons waiting in line to buy certain items with personalized cellphone advertisements.

Ward also discussed the possible advantages that information sharing could provide in the health care and security industries. He said the decline in privacy comes with some benefits because people who are more willing to share medical information, such as their genetic code, could allow for significant advances in health care research.

“I am fundamentally optimistic about the future,” Ward said. “I think it’s just going to get better and better.”

Audience members interviewed were enthusiastic about Ward’s eagerness to introduce them to potential future changes in technology that could affect their own lives. But they also said they were struck by the idea of raising children in a world without privacy.

Peter Tobin GRD ’15 said Ward made him interested in learning more about mobile software technology.

“We’re realizing that the next generation is going to have a completely different perspective on data access,” Daniel Kent SOM ’15 said. “I echo Ward’s concerns about having to raise a son or a daughter in this environment.”

Popular Science is the most widely read science and technology magazine in the nation.

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