Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Microsoft researchers can predict your physical location in the future.

We know that our phones constantly broadcast their (our!) location to cell towers, 24/7. We know that both the phone company AND the phone manufacturers (Apple/Google) keep this information. For a long time. Like, forever most likely. So they know where you've been to a very high degree of accuracy. Well now there's a paper by two guys who took all that data and wrote a program to predict where you are GOING to be at any given time on any given day.

Using information from a pool of 300 volunteers in the Seattle metro area, Sadilek and Krumm gathered a mountain of location data. As the volunteers went about their daily lives--going to work, to the grocery store, out for a jog, even for transcontinental travel--each carried a GPS device much the same way they carried a cell phone. To further ensure accuracy, the researchers also installed GPS devices in commercial shuttles and transit vans that the volunteers used regularly, and the volunteers' own vehicles. After collecting over 150 million location points, the researchers then had Far Out, the first system of its kind to predict long-term human mobility in a unified way, parse the data. Far Out didn't even need to be told exactly what to look for--it automatically discovered regularities in the data.

"For example, it might notice that Tuesdays and Thursdays are usually about the same and fairly consistent from week to week," the researchers told us. "Then when we ask about a future Tuesday or Thursday, the algorithm automatically produces a typical Tuesday/Thursday as a prediction."

Salidek and Krumm were pleasantly surprised with the results. It turns out that no matter how spontaneous we think we are, humans are actually quite predictable in our movements, even over extended periods of time. Not only did Far Out predict with high accuracy the correct location of a wide variety of individuals, but it did so even years into the future.

This does not seem like much of a problem for a computer. Comparing data is what they're for. The real problem is collecting the location points, in the research solved by a GPS unit. In our non-research real lives, this data is available from Apple and Google for a small fee. Also available to the NSA because they archive ALL OF IT. In fact, I would be shocked if the NSA doesn't already do exactly this type of prediction on an on-demand basis. Its obvious.

Well, apart from spying, what could such a system be used for?

For now Far Out is strictly a research project not yet available in commercial products or services. And although its focus currently is on the future whereabouts of single individuals, eventually, the researchers' hope is that it can be applied to larger populations. This could be a boon to urban planners by leading to more accurate predictions about the spread of disease, traffic congestion, and the demand for electricity.

On the social side, there could even be something like a Foursquare of the Future.

Marketers and advertisers, too, would relish the opportunity to target our future selves with ads like, "Need a haircut? In four days, you'll be 100 yards from a salon that will have a $15 special." On the social side, there could even be something like a Foursquare of the Future--who wouldn't want to know where their friends (and enemies) will be for the rest of their lives…or at least for the next 285 days?

Because that's what we all need and want in our lives. More planning and regulation, more ads on our phones, and people either stalking or dodging us with ever increasing accuracy.

I'm increasingly thinking that a portable phone may be a hell of a lot more of a millstone than a help, given that the Stazi would have all happily sacrificed a limb to get this level of surveillance on East Germany. Its a tyrant's wet dream.

The Phantom

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