Big Data in the Age of Biology

Facebook, Google, Amazon and Apple sound old. Investors have their eyes on startups invested into healthcare and personal medicine

Charles Assisi

[Image via Flickr]

For close to two years now, my colleague NS Ramnath in Bengaluru and I have spent most of our time researching a long-term project on Big Data. When I emerged out of the cave and caught up with the headlines, it turned out, a company called Facebook has been up to a lot many snarky things.

Everybody around sounds horrified and the headlines have it that people can be manipulated. Why does everybody sound surprised?

That Facebook is up to no good is a submission many people have made in the past. I had pointed to it three years ago. Another plea I had made was to get off Twitter and LinkedIn as well please. Platforms of these kinds are designed to numb the senses, are abusive places, and can be used to manipulate the mind. The conversations we engage in with each other are driven by filter-bubbles. Common sense has it all bubbles burst. We humans though have a way of ignoring the obvious.

The smart ones in Big Data have already made their moves. They are interested in our “health” and “well-being”

That out of the way, my conversations with people engaged in the business of Big Data show that new patterns are emerging. Some of them look obvious. The smart ones in Big Data have already made their moves. They are interested in our “health” and “well-being”. They are already at work to build a new industry. It is shaping up in the form of “personalised medicine”. Much investment is being poured into it by the world’s largest venture capital firms.

To be doubly sure if there is merit in the hypothesis, I thought I’d run it past a friend who spends most of his time in Silicon Valley and is a serial entrepreneur. “Personalised medicine” is something I’ve heard from him a few times in the past. Sure enough, he has already gotten into the space.

“Silicon Valley is full of stupid people who look smart. What they’re good at is how to spot a trend before it gets the world’s attention, package it right, and get big money to back them because it doesn’t know where else to invest next,” he offered by way of perspective. We laughed. But he meant every word.

By way of example, he pointed to an entity called Theranos. It has been in the news since 2013, had claimed to have developed a “secret technology” that promised to revolutionise blood testing, and raised at least $700 million from “these stupid people”. Earlier this month, the American regulatory authorities figured there was no secret machine and it was all an elaborate scam. The firm has since been shuttered and fuming investors are wondering whatever happened.

It doesn’t have those at Silicon Valley too concerned though, he says. Because everybody has placed their bets that this is the Age of Biology. That is why he says he cannot make any sense either of another entity called Modern Therapeutics. It is now valued at $7.5 billion, is one of the most valued startups in the world, and claims it is at work to develop drugs that can cure cancer. “Most of what it does is unclear to me,” he says. “I’m not sure how it has attracted as much money as it has.”

If that isn’t enough, he asks that I look up Grail Inc. Founded last year, it has raised $1.1 billion and investors include Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and Johnson & Johnson. Once again, not much is known about the venture, except that it claims to be scouting for a cure for cancer, is asking thousands of volunteers to donate blood, in return for which they are offered a $25 gift card. That Jeff Bezos and Amazon have nurtured dreams of getting into the industry for a long time is now well documented.

If I look beyond the world of startups, every large entity currently engaged with Big Data has its eyes on healthcare. Apple’s CEO Tim Cook is on the record that “healthcare is big for Apple’s future”. With $7 trillion spent on health, what is spent on smartphones each year sounds like pennies. Google is investing heavily into pharmaceutical startups via Google Ventures, the company’s investment arm. Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg’s pledge to eliminate chronic disease made the headlines in 2016.

Having just emerged from researching how fortunes are built on the back of Big Data, there seems to be a method to how it is done. Some things stand out as the striking features.

  1. A promise that the technology will change consumers’ lives.
  2. Much money chases those at work on this promise.
  3. The utter cluelessness of regulatory authorities on how to deal with these technologies.

That is how Facebook got to be as large as it did. Much the same can be said of Google, Amazon, Apple and every other entity that has morphed into a platform.

It is another matter altogether that in the short term, much song and dance will be made about regulating these platforms. But after expending much time and energy, authorities will tear their hair in exasperation trying to figure how to regulate these platforms. While some kind of scrutiny will be mounted, when legally challenged, all arguments are in favour of platforms.

This, because there are many reasons why these platforms are needed. The rate at which technology is changing is unprecedented in human history. This leads to a few outcomes. Some of these were summed up succinctly on Farnam Street Blog by its founder Shane Parrish under a post titled the Half Life of Knowledge. In it, he highlights something that often escapes us:

“The doubling of knowledge increases the learning load over time. As a body of knowledge doubles so does the cost of wrapping your head around what we already know. This cost is the burden of knowledge. To be the best in a general field today requires that you know more than the person who was the best only 20 years ago. Not only do you have to be better to be the best, but you also have to be better just to stay in the game.”

The implications of this were explained to him in a podcast with Samuel Arbesman, a complexity scientist focused on the nature of scientific and sociological change.

“There were natural limits to what the human mind can understand. ….but at the same time over the past maybe century or two, there’s been this somewhat triumphalist sense when it comes to science. That if there’s a question, no matter what, if we put our minds to it we can understand everything. That’s not always true. There are limits and we’re going to bump up against our limits of understanding. That’s true even for the technologies that we ourselves have made.”

As humans, we have reached the limits of our understanding. Technology is needed to make some sense of it all

The dichotomy here is impossible to miss. As humans, we have reached the limits of our understanding. Technology is needed to make some sense of it all. On its part, technology has acquired a life of its own. How do you regulate it now?

This is a complex question. As articulated earlier, over the past two years our research on how Big Data has evolved, and our conversations with thought leaders at the frontiers indicate their willingness to put skin in the game into healthcare. How they are going about building these industries is eerily similar to how their current empires are built.

  1. Promise to make life easy for the end user.
  2. Make their product available very abundantly and for cheap.
  3. Harvest data from those who use it.
  4. When asked why, the answer is that data is needed to understand consumers more intimately. That is how their offerings can be made more relevant.

On the face of it, all evidence is tilted in favour of this argument. The more granularly a platform understands its customers, the better they are able to fine tune their offerings and make customers happy.

Then on the other hand, data is harvested to get people addicted to their offerings. The most ubiquitous outcome of this is addiction to cellphones and social media networks. This again, is impossible to prove because every platform argues it does not compel anybody to use cellular phones or stay on the social media networks they create; and that those who choose to be on it are there of their own free will.

While these are technical and legal arguments, what we are witnesses to is a world where Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is now the norm, not an exception. Everybody wants to attempt too many things at once. The human brain that was intended to be a spotlight brain has changed into a floodlight brain.

We were originally built to concentrate on a single task and had a spotlight brain. We cannot now do that

We were originally built to concentrate on a single task and had a spotlight brain. We cannot now do that because there are many choices available, such as social media networks, and the floodlights get turned on. Everything can be seen; what to choose, and how to choose seems impossible. Unless aided by applications of some kind on platforms.

Studies conducted over eight years among school children show ADHD has risen by as much as 43%.. This means, they cannot pay attention, or have behavioural difficulties.

“I am not surprised at all by changes in how the human brain responds to stimuli on the screen,” says Dr Siddhika Panjwani, a neuro-psychologist based in Mumbai. In her practice as a consultant to multiple hospitals in the city, she is a witness to people across age groups coping with the problems that arise from such behaviour. “The beep on a phone or change in colour on an application can trigger a dopamine rush. What happens from there on include a chain of events over which individuals lose control,” she says.

It is inevitable then that they start searching for solutions that include drugs such as Adderall, Ritalin, Limidax, Adrafinil and many other “study drugs”.

These are not party drugs. Nor are they performance-enhancement drugs like steroids. These are ubiquitous and most people think them harmless. “These are amphetamine-based drugs,” says Panjwani. There are derivatives available in India and she is a witness to students and young working professionals latching on to them to beat ADHD among other lifestyle disorders. They are ignorant of the risks these drugs pose and imagine such a drug improves their ability to think better to get on top of their game.

All such a drug does is allow them to stay focused, organise tasks and listen to others talk. It creates an illusion that time has slowed down and more can be accomplished. In a more old-fashioned world, people used to think of it as “concentrate on a task”.

When did things come to such a pass that to concentrate, drugs may be needed?

“It is not just screen time. Those addicted to screens consume a lot of processed foods and engage in very little physical activity,” says Panjwani. When added up, it derails a human, she says.

Focused conversations with children in schools, teens in colleges and young professionals suggest they are under enormous pressure to get faster, higher and better. But do it they must in a world where the half-life of knowledge is growing shorter. Content is being belted out in truckloads. To just stay in one place, they must run faster.

An academic friend shared the internal findings from a prestigious university near Delhi. It reported that over 40% of its students are “depressed” and require intervention. Much debate within the faculty later, they admitted they have themselves to blame.

The pressure they place on students to perform across every domain is high. Failure is not taken kindly. When they introspected though, they figured this has much to do with how they see their contemporaries from competing universities on social media. Everybody looks happy and shiny.

The Law of Unintended Consequences then kick in. All “outstanding performances” are shared and amplified. A race begins to outdo each other and demonstrate who is happier and shiner. Nobody is willing to admit they feel wretched. And that to feel low is as human as it is to feel high.

To stay high all of the time then, if a few pills can be availed off the counter, why not? There is a big market now for amphetamine-based drugs in the Western world. There is much debate in the medical fraternity on what may the long-term impact of this be. There aren’t enough studies available to show what may the issues be.

Policy makers still have to wrap their heads around it as well. The question is, how do they begin to regulate it? What can after all be wrong with something that helps you focus on a task? Or for that matter concentrate better?

In the meanwhile, it is being shared by the very young, much like they would share pictures and status updates, because it is seen as “cool” to pop a pill that allows them to do much. This is how social media networks started to percolate.

Things stand at an inflection point where they now sit on data that allow them to create personalised medicines

The networks then morphed into entities that can personalise content feeds to create echo chambers where each one can hear only the voices that matter to them. Things stand at an inflection point where they now sit on data that allow them to create personalised medicines to suit individual personalities.

This was as good a time as any to call Rajat Chauhan, a medical doctor and close friend. Turns out, he is as concerned about what is going on.

As a thumb rule, he does not like to prescribe medicine. “Go back to first principles,” is his preferred prescription. Two months ago, he had thought up some exercises anyone can practice. It looked ridiculously simple. I told him it doesn’t look worth my while. He insisted I try it out for old time’s sake.

When I started on it though, it soon became obvious what he meant. I wasn’t performing at my optimum. Things started to fall into place.

After two weeks of focusing on how to breathe right, I figured I was using only one nostril. It meant I was taking in only 50% of the oxygen my body needs. That’s too little for my brain to perform at optimum. I now also know I have weak shoulder blades. And that I had kept my feet encased in shoes for too long. That is why I am bad at long distance running and tire out easily. He asked me to stay at it and not bother much.

One day, while attempting to take a deep breath, the blocked nostril popped open. Suddenly, I was breathing. The difference was palpable in a few days. With more oxygen getting into the system, I can now stay focused for longer periods of time. All I can say is, I think my brain has gotten better—without any amphetamine-based drugs or sharing personal data on a technology platform that may trade in it.

That this can be had for free is something no commercial entity wants me to know. To figure that out though, I’ve had to switch my phone off and disconnect from social media networks most of the time.

I need the spotlight part of brain turned on all the time. It’ll take a while to convince the kids though.

(This article is an adapted and longer version of what was originally published in Mint on Sunday)

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About the author

Charles Assisi
Charles Assisi

Co-founder and Director

Founding Fuel

Charles Assisi is an award-winning journalist with two decades of experience to back him. He is co-founder and director at Founding Fuel, and co-author of the book The Aadhaar Effect. He is a columnist for Hindustan Times, one of India's most influential English newspaper. He is vocal in his views on journalism and what shape it ought to take in India. He speaks on the theme at various forums and is often invited by various organizations to teach their teams how to write.

In his last assignment, he wore two hats: That of Managing Editor at Forbes India and Editor at ForbesLife India. As part of the leadership team, his mandate was to create a distinctive business title in a market many thought was saturated. When Forbes India was finally launched after much brainstorming and thinking through, it broke through the ranks and got to be recognized as the most influential business magazine in the country. He did much the same thing with ForbesLife India where he broke from convention and launched the title to critical acclaim.

Before that, he was National Technology Editor and National Business Editor at the Times of India, during the great newspaper wars of 2005. He was part of the team that ensured Times of India maintained top dog status in Mumbai on the face of assaults by DNA and Hindustan Times.

His first big gig came in his late twenties when German media house Vogel Burda marked its India debut with CHIP a wildly popular technology magazine. He was appointed Editor and given a free run to create what he wanted. During this stint, he worked and interacted with all of Vogel Burda's various newsrooms across Europe and Asia.

Charles holds a Masters in Economics from Mumbai Universtity and an MBA in Finance. Along the way he earned the Madhu Valluri Award for Excellence in Journalism and the Polestar Award for Excellence in Business Journalism.

In his spare time, he reads voraciously across the board, but is biased towards psychology and the social sciences. He dabbles in various things that catch his fancy at various points. But as fancies go, many evaporate as often as they fall on him.

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