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Julia Zarina: Welcoming our digital fate

By Julia Zarina, Columnist
Published March 11, 2014

As an engineer, I spend a lot of time thinking about the digital future. I get excited and sometimes a little emotional about robots. I frequently scan a variety of Twitter feeds and websites for updates like “NASA wants your code to hunt asteroids” and “scientists take steps toward fusion energy, but you can’t use it to power your DeLorean just yet.” When I go home to D.C., I make a ritual trip to the Air and Space Museum to ask the staff all the questions about space systems and satellites I’ve accumulated over the past semester to which Google has not returned satisfactory answers.

As a person, I spend a lot of time thinking about my love-hate relationship with the digital present. I periodically delete my Facebook in what is usually a misguided effort to see the people I care about more in “real life” and less through a screen. I don’t text very much. Twitter is a weakness I hate to love and love to hate, but I overuse it shamelessly as a testing ground for bad jokes and as a quick news resource. I Snapchat. I Instagram. I occasionally use Tumblr and Tinder — but view my presence on those sites as the clearest indicator that an Internet intervention is warranted. I curate my digital life fairly carefully — not only because being a college student comes with endless reminders that your future employers are apparently hunched over a computer in a darkened room as we speak, scouring every detail of your personal life online — but because as much as I hate to admit it, I care about the way I present myself through what I post.

I don’t think anyone would find that statement particularly surprising. Our generation has been partially living, or at least existing, online almost since we were born. For better or worse, we are defining a digital existence to be almost as important and meaningful as an existence in the physical world. There is very little in our lives that is not affected by technology: from our education, to our entertainment, to our personal relationships. We date online and identify with movies where a man falls in love with an operating system. Our friends live in other cities in person but live in our phones in spirit. A vast and growing expanse of information is collected about us daily: what we buy at the grocery store, what we tweet about, where we travel, even who we call and what we talk about, depending on how interesting the NSA finds us.

The future of our digital existence will be defined by what we do with this data: how we process it into information, how we interpret it and use it to shape our lives both online and offline. Big data is a ubiquitous buzzword in business, research and government. It describes the massive volume, velocity and variety of data that is collected daily to track trends, target customers and identify processes. In 2012, the amount of this data stored exceeded 2.8 Zettabytes and is expected to be nearly 50 times that by 2020. The cumulative size of the centers needed to store all of this data would fill a two-lane highway stretching from Tokyo to San Francisco.

The challenge now is not gathering the data, but making sense from the noise. Only 0.5 percent of the data currently collected is processed, tagged and catalogued into what we can consider useful information. Here at the University of Michigan, researchers in the EECS Department explore areas like machine learning — the technology behind what makes your e-mail recognize spam as spam and messages from your boss as important, for example — and robotics to design systems that make information processing and decision-making easier. In the corporate world, IBM is spearheading an initiative to put Watson, their Jeopardy-winning “cognitive system,” to work in practical applications. Humans are inherently limited in the amount of parallel processing we can do and the amount of information we can memorize. Both scientists and CEOs are trying to answer questions about the limitations of people and machines alike. Will the doctors, teachers and bankers of the future be computers, or are there certain, invaluable human characteristics that can never be programmed or executed by code?

In “A Super Sad True Love Story,” a novel by Gary Shteyngart, the not so distant future is portrayed as a blurring of the lines between data and life. People walk the streets with their real life stats displayed for strangers to interpret and corporations to target. Billboards change as they pass to show the exact brand and product they are most likely to buy. Strangers in a bar decide who to talk to based on the digital broadcasting of their interests and others’ ratings. Privacy is not only obsolete, but irrelevant. It’s a distinctly invasive existence, albeit a very efficient one. Objectively, I think I’d like to know my own stats: how many pizzas I’ve consumed in my lifetime, how many people think I’m insufferably obnoxious, whether that man at the coffee shop lists Ayn Rand as one of his favorite authors, thereby indicating that I should resolutely not bother gathering up the courage to ask him to dinner. Having all this data compiled and processed would take so much of the uncertainty and guesswork out of life. I wonder if I would be happier or just plain bored.

Recently in an interview with The Guardian titled “Are the robots about to rise?” Ray Kurzweil, Google’s new director of engineering, expressed his beliefs that the data processing capabilities of artificial intelligence will overtake human intelligence in every capacity in the near future and that computers will gain what he describes as something a lot like our concept of consciousness. Many people dismiss these predictions as improbable — computers still struggle with many of the things that define us as distinctly human such as semantics, humor and emotions — but reality is not far off. Human behavior is still easily distinguishable from that of computers, but life and technology are converging in medicine, business, relationships and nearly every other aspect of our society. We have not thus far drawn a line in the sand that we are unwilling to cross. Will we ever, or do we value the imperfections and inefficiencies of the human experience too much? Is there anything that humans can do that computers will never be able to do better? Is there anything that makes us distinctly different? Does it even matter? The future is here and the possibilities are ready to be shaped into reality. I, for one, welcome the robots with open arms.

Julia Zarina can be reached at