Nothing in excess; including technology

“As the Greek precept recommended: nothing in excess. Technology is designed to be addictive.” These words of warning come from Núria Oliver, one of the world’s leading innovators in the field of artificial intelligence, who nevertheless asserts her confidence in the great benefits of new technologies for mankind.

© Pere Virgili

A telecommunications engineer with a PhD from MIT, Núria Oliver (Alicante, 1970) is the Scientific Director of Telefónica I+D and part of the 10% of women who hold executive positions in the technology sector. She is concerned about correcting this imbalance and intent on attracting girls to the world of science from a young age.

She completed her PhD on artificial intelligence at the MIT Media Lab in Massachusetts thanks to a scholarship from La Caixa, research that has enjoyed ample recognition, with mentions in more than eight thousand publications. In 2009, the Women’s Forum for the Economy and Society named her as an emerging talent, and in 2013 she received the Senior Member Grade of the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM). She has also received numerous awards for her scientific publications.

In 2000 she joined Microsoft and worked at its research centre in Redmond, Washington  (USA). At that time, the possibility of doing research in our country seemed rather remote to her, although she did not rule it out completely. Seven years later she was back in Barcelona to join Telefónica’s multimedia research team, where she is still employed. At the beginning of 2015, she organised the TEDxBarcelonaED, a branch of the TED talks on education, featuring worldwide experts in the future of learning and education. This is one of Oliver’s main areas of interest: discovering how people learn in order to make machines learn; in other words, improving artificial intelligence so that it may serve us. Her other area of expertise is the use of big data by means of data mining and automated recommendation systems.

For readers who are not familiar with the term, one illustrative example of big data would be the dataset I generated from the moment I left home an hour ago until I arrived here for this interview.

If you consulted Google Maps to locate the building, you generated geolocation data. If you looked at the website’s address, you also left a digital footprint. If you made a telephone call or sent a WhatsApp message, if you took public transport, if you passed by security cameras…

And what can we do with all this?

A great number of things. A large part of the internet services economy is based on the monetisation of these personal data. But one of the most interesting areas, on a collective scale, is the power of these digital footprints, duly de-identified and aggregated, to improve city design, optimise public transport, assist in the event of a natural emergency or minimise the risk of a pandemic.

For many users, the most evident experience of the commercial use of data is advertising displayed that’s related to internet searches you have just performed.

The main value of data, from the commercial standpoint, is the potential for personalisation; that the mobile device or the service you are using will get to know you better and will therefore help you to find relevant information, make purchases adjusted to your requirements or consume music or books you will probably like. And for personalisation to exist, data must be analysed so that the system will know what you like. It is an area where there will be a major transformation. There are many worldwide initiatives geared towards making the use of personal data more transparent and towards increasing control.

You mentioned pandemics. How can big data help there?

One of the most interesting data sources for the public health service sector is that of cell towers, which work as totally passive, anonymous, aggregated and relatively universal data generators, because nowadays everyone has a mobile. These data allow us to understand how the population moves, which is very important with regard to human-transmitted infectious diseases like Ebola or swine flu.

You’ve studied the personal application of big data. For example, in helping us to sleep better.

I’ve been working in the field of wearables for many years now. Now they are all the rage, but at that time hardly anyone was talking about them. My main field of interest is how to get computers, cars, houses, cities or telephones to understand people. And how to translate people’s behaviour, feelings, actions, personality and any other aspect that characterises us into computable data. In the mid nineties, MIT organised a smart clothes fashion show. At that time, mobiles were only telephones, not computers, which is what they are now. By 2005, telephones packed major computing power. That was when I had an epiphany and realised that the mobile phone was the real personal computer. It was then that I decided that I only wanted to work with mobiles. And I realised that the combination of sensors and mobiles could make that dream of smart clothes we had had in the nineties come true. The first project was HealthGear, which monitored sound with mobiles. It was a device that you put on your foot (and which I had to make myself), consisting of an oximeter that measured blood oxygen and heart frequency and an accelerometer to detect movements. You wore it with a sock, and it relayed the information via Bluetooth to the mobile, which analysed the data. This allowed us to detect sleep apnoea, a disease in which you stop breathing for a few seconds while you are sleeping.

Have you worked on any city projects in Barcelona?

We collaborated with Telefónica on a project using the Bicing  public bike share scheme: we captured data from all the bicycles and empty spaces in each station, allowing us to model data behaviour and group it into clusters of similar stations. This generated a map of how people use the city, which only overlapped with the map of the districts to a certain extent.

This must have applications for private companies as well.

Telefónica has a product, Smart Steps, which studies antenna activities and divides the city on a grid. It then tells you how many people there are in each box with certain demographic variables. If you own a shop, a café or a franchise, knowing the areas where there is greatest movement can help you decide where to locate your business.

City development in real time.

A few months ago, we worked together with the Open Data Institute, a non-profit organisation from London that promotes Open Data, founded by Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web. We organised a Datathon for Social Good during the London Campus Party in September 2013. We used activity data from the city and from the census of each neighbourhood, with many demographic variables: crime rate, calls to emergency services, immigrants, the unemployed… The winning project was capable of predicting crime by studying the city’s dynamics, based on the data from the antennas combined with the census. We were able to predict if a given part of the grid would be a hot spot the following month.

In the film Minority Report they were able to detect who was predestined to be a criminal in order to prevent it. Are we close to that?

There are two methods for characterising crime in cities. The first predicts whether an individual will commit a crime, just like that film. But it turned out that it was more effective to examine places rather than people, which is the second method. Not trying to ascertain whether you or I will commit a crime, but rather whether crimes will be committed in this neighbourhood. We don’t know who will perpetrate them, but we can reinforce security.

A few months ago, Stephen Hawking and other scientists warned of the possible apocalyptic consequences of a future dominated by machines.

We will be seeing major breakthroughs in five or ten years’ time, and I think they will work to the good of mankind and will improve our quality of life. The possibilities in the sphere of education or medicine, for example, are enormous.

You just said that computers being able to understand feelings will be a key factor. Does that not challenge the deep-rooted notion that every person is unique and cannot be reduced to an algorithm?

A large part of communication does not lie only in what you say but rather in how you express it. Human beings in general are quite adept at communicating with each other like that. But it’s a highly complex matter, because human beings use many signs or signals in their emotions: tone, gestures, expressions, etc., not to mention physiological changes, such as heart rate or skin conductivity. All this work can help people who, for example, find it difficult to recognise emotions, such as those who fall within the autistic spectrum.

So you reject such apocalyptic visions.

Technology is a powerful tool: it all depends on who uses it. The clearest example is nuclear technology: it can be used for good or for evil. One of my main areas of interest is education in the use of technology. I’m worried about parents’ permissiveness in the use of technology by young children. This is often due to ignorance of the negative aspects involved in using it. It has a magical effect: give a two-year-old child an iPad and the child disappears. But we have to reflect upon what impact this mesmerising effect could have on their neural development.


Ultimately, the problem is not use, but rather misuse.

As the Greek precept recommended: nothing in excess. We have to understand that technology is designed to be addictive, otherwise companies would not make money. There is no point in being naive or innocent about this: a lot of research and preliminary work goes into video games, Facebook, WhatsApp. And with our mobile phone, we should stop and think whether we really need to use it at that time, or whether we are just bored and want to kill time. We should think about the things we are missing out on by doing so. Maybe we are losing the capacity to do just nothing. Because knowing how to do nothing is also very important for our emotional well-being and balance. 78% of adults in the United States regard themselves as nomophobic, i.e. they get anxious and experience physical symptoms if they do not have their mobile handy. This should give us food for thought. Is it that important? Just a few years ago we got along fine without mobile phones.

Another ongoing debate is the digital divide between those who have access to new technologies and those who do not.

In several developing economies there are initiatives afoot to make sure that increasingly more people have access to the internet. Google and Facebook, for example, offer connection, but through their sites. This makes you think, because you are conditioning internet access to the interests of a certain company. Are you closing the gap or are you creating customers for this company? In any event, I believe in the power of technology to democratise. And with the exponential growth of computing capacity, which leads to an exponential reduction in cost, it is my hope that it will become a tool to deliver access to health and education to millions of people who currently lack them. But since the majority of information is textual, if you cannot read it you are shut out. Literacy is a major challenge: reading, and all the automatic translation systems, must be promoted to permit access to information by people who do not know how to read or do not speak one of the five languages in which most information is published.

If big data is such a big business, should I have the right – as an individual providing data – to claim my own part?

In Trento we conducted an interesting project called the Mobile Territorial Lab. We took 150 people from the street: they were volunteers who were given a free telephone for more than one year in exchange for their interactions, internet access and the applications they used being monitored… They were able to see what we were controlling. The idea was to ascertain what data they valued most and how much money they thought it was worth. And we saw that location is what people prize most highly. Sometimes you do not realise how one data item gives us nothing special, but the sum of your locations, for example, says a great deal about you. Ultimately, the economic rating amounted to a few dozen Euros per person. Indeed, it would make sense to wonder if there is a market for personal data. I own my own data and I sell them to Facebook or Google, because if they make money out of it then why shouldn’t I? But it’s also true that I use their services free of charge. They could say to me: pay for each search. Or pay with your data, which is what is happening now.

Maybe one day this question will be irrelevant, but has being a woman in a sector so dominated by men been tough for you?

This imbalance is not being corrected in Europe or the United States, and I find that worrying. I give chats in schools beginning in fourth-year secondary education, and when I ask who is studying the technology syllabus, 90% of the answers come from boys. And the girls that do technology choose architecture, which, in the technical careers, is the one most related to the arts. One major stumbling block is the huge gender separation imposed by toys. A blatant proportion of toys for girls are in pink boxes, princess stuff…, which, to my mind, beggars belief. It is essential that we inspire the new generations, particularly girls, and get them interested in technology, but as creators, not consumers. Empower them with skills in the use of technology as a tool for solving problems, implementing projects, inventing things, etc.

You’ve worked for MIT, Microsoft… What could Barcelona import from American research culture?

Plenty! For starters, budgets… As well as the great American “yes we can” spirit. In Europe, and more particularly in Spain, there is a widespread mentality of shooting down ideas before they are even tested. It’s the fear of the unknown. In the United States, things are quite the opposite. This idea is crazy? Let’s test it! Here it is best to stick to the rules.

To end on a positive note, what does Barcelona have in its favour?

The city is very attractive, and that is very noticeable. It enjoys great exposure abroad and is very famous in the United States. It is well-connected, it has the sea, mountains, gastronomy, arts, culture and more.

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