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Should we fear mind-reading future tech?

This year's LeWeb London event examines the push for
This year's LeWeb London event examines the push for "faster than real time" technology and its implications.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Predictive tech is where the devices and software you use will guess what you want before you decide
  • Critics: New form of tech could prove a new battlefield in the world of online privacy
  • Predictive tech is the theme of the LeWeb'12 London meet in UK capital June 19 and 20

Editor's note: Andrew Keen is a British-American entrepreneur and professional skeptic. He is the author of "The Cult of the Amateur," and "Digital Vertigo." Follow @ajkeen on Twitter.

(CNN) -- I know where to find the future. It will show up, I predict, on Tuesday at London's Westminster Central Hall. Don't blink. It will arrive in the shape of Le Web, Europe's illustrious two-day Internet conference which, this year, is focusing on next-generation digital products that are "faster than realtime."

Faster than realtime?

"It's when the server brings you a beer before you ask for it because she already knows what you drink!"

That's at least what "faster than realtime" means to Robert Scoble, Silicon Valley's most ubiquitous observer of the digital future who, inevitably enough, will be speaking at Le Web.

In Scoble's future, the computer "server" and the "server" in the bar will be indistinguishable. And they will both know what you want to drink before you know it yourself.

Andrew Keen
Andrew Keen

Loic Le Meur, the Silicon Valley based Franco-American impresario who founded Le Web and is the architect of the "faster than realtime" theme of tomorrow's conference, shares Scoble's faith in the internet's uncannily predictive power.

How our mobiles became Frankenstein's monster

"We've arrived in the future," Le Meur told me. Online apps are getting to know us so intimately, he explained, that we can know things before they happen. To illustrate his point, Le Meur told me about his use of Highlight, a social location app which offers illuminating data about nearby people who have signed up for the network like -- you guessed it -- the digitally omniscient Robert Scoble.

Highlight enabled Le Meur to literally know the future before it happened because, he says, it is measuring our location all of the time. "I opened the door before he was there because I knew he was coming," Le Meur told me excitedly about a recent meeting that he had in the real world with Scoble.

Paul Davison, the CEO of Highlight who will be speaking at Le Web, agrees with Le Meur about how "faster than realtime" is revolutionizing not only the internet but the very nature of life itself in the digital 21st century. "We're entering a very special time in history, where smartphones and mobile sensors will allow us to see things that we've never been able to see before," Davison told me. "It's really exciting."

But it's not just social apps like Hightlight that are enabling the web to predict the future. As Le Meur explained to me, medical lifestyle and fitness apps like Withings and Runkeeper enable him to predict his weight in advance because they are able over time -- through the massive amounts of personal data that they collect from his body -- to map out patterns which his brain doesn't have the processing power to grasp.

"Our bodies are streaming data. It knows thousands of my runs," Le Meur confessed to me. "It even measures my sleep."

The computer 'server' and the 'server' in the bar will be indistinguishable... They will both know what you want to drink before you know it yourself.
Andrew Keen

But faster than realtime goes beyond Loic Le Meur's body. Many of the speakers at Le Web -- such as Tom Katis the CEO of Voxer, Bradley Horowitz the VP of Product Development at Google and Shakil Khan, the head of special projects at Path -- will talk about how their products are radically changing the way in which we use voice, video and text data online.

How the digital blob feasts on our intimate data

Le Web will even feature a speech from McKinsey partner Eric Hazan on how "faster than realtime" is shifting the behavior of consumption across the internet.

This is a business as well as a consumer revolution. Another of the Le Web speakers will be Nick Halstead, the founder of Datasift, a platform that enables companies to interpret massive amounts of data through social media networks like Twitter and Facebook.

Companies like Datasift enable companies to know the future. "In the pre-social era, companies based their business decisions on backwards looking data; purchases that have been made, and orders that have been fulfilled," Halstead explained to me. "In the social era, the social-stream of the world is telling us what's happening now, or will happen. As a social data platform, DataSift helps companies make sense of billions of social conversations to make better decisions for their company and customers."

Not ever web user, of course, will be thrilled with the idea of companies being able to to predict our future buying habits in advance. Indeed, as I've argued, "faster than realtime" apps like Highlight creates a eerie, perhaps even a creepy, kind of serendipity. According to Sam Shank, the CEO of HotelTonight and another of Le Web's speakers, tomorrow's technology will know what we want before we know we want it ourselves.

As Shank confessed to me, his "long term vision" for HotelTonight is "to get the service so personalized and context-aware that it books you the perfect room at the perfect hotel for you, before you even know you want a hotel."

"Now that's clearly faster than real time!" Shank told me with unabashed excitement.

But do we really want algorithms knowing what we want better than ourselves, so they can determine -- faster than real time -- where we should stay, when we should eat, who we should meet or what we should buy? According to Le Meur, who did acknowledge to me some privacy concerns with "faster than realtime" (especially with respect to personal financial and location data), it offers "extraordinary" opportunities to improve our own lives by learning about our bodies, finding a job or starting a business.

Battle lines drawn as data becomes oil of digital age

We have "no choice but to fully embrace" today's online products, Le Meur told me about technology which he describes as "unheralded" in history.

Do we really want algorithms knowing what we want better than ourselves -- so they can determine, faster than real time, where we should stay, when we should eat?
Andrew Keen

But not every speaker at Le Web shares Le Meur's uncompromising optimism. I will be personally debating Scoble on Wednesday about the existential value of radical transparency in a digital society in which we know everything about everyone. And Milo Yiannopoulos, the founder and editor-in-chief of The Kernel Magazine and another Le Web speaker, shares my concerns about an online world in which complex data algorithms manage our lives for us.

"At first glance, "faster than real time" is an absurd phrase and a daft theme for an internet conference," Yiannopoulos told me. "But what it's getting at, of course, is the spooky way in which new devices and services seem able to anticipate our needs -- and predict our behavior. This is the privacy battleground that will define the second coming of Silicon Valley. It can seem at times as though we're running headlong -- and faster than real time -- into an uncertain and sinister future." So what to do about the spookiness of "faster than realtime?" Is Yiannopoulos' "sinister" future inevitable?

One person who, unfortunately, won't be speaking at Le Web is Microsoft's Chief Privacy Officer, Brendon Lynch. Unlike many of the speakers at Le Web, Lynch sees nothing either inevitable or attractive about an Internet dominated by apps and services that know us better than we know ourselves.

Indeed, a couple of weeks ago, Microsoft announced that its new IE10 browser would come with a Do Not Track default feature which would automatically block users' browsing data being collected by third parties. As Lynch blogged, research shows that 68% of consumers aren't okay with targeted advertising because "they don't like having their online behavior tracked and analyzed."

"Customers want a privacy by default experience," Lynch insisted to me. We don't want to be watched in everything they do and say online, he believes.

So Milo Yiannopoulos could well be right. "The privacy battleground that will define the second coming of Silicon Valley" may be between the 68% of us who don't want to be tracked or analyzed and data optimists who believe that it's in our interest to share all our personal data with our apps.

One thing is for sure, however. This year's Le Web will offer its 1,250 attendees a memorable trip into the future. No wonder that the event is already sold out. Rather than just a slick marketing term, "faster than realtime" represents today's digital zeitgeist. And, like it or not, it may well be tomorrow's reality.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Andrew Keen.

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