Nigel Shadbolt: Welcome To The Age Of Digital Enlightenment

Nigel-Shadbolt open data institute

In its next 25 years, the Web will drive a redefinition of the relationship between citizens and society, Sir Nigel Shadbolt tells TechWeek

In the last quarter of a century, the world wide web has changed society so much that we should be talking of a “Digital Enlightenment”, says Sir Nigel Shadbolt, who predicts the next next 25 years will bring even bigger changes.

On the 25th anniversary of the creation of the web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee has been calling for a Bill of Rights for the Internet. Shadbolt’s talk of Enlightenment dovetails well with that of the web’s inventor, as you might expect, since they jointly created the discipline of Web Science, founded Britain’s Open Data Institute, and have collaborated on numerous other projects, attempting to shape the way society relates to this utterly transforming phenomenon.

Professor_Nigel_ShadboltThe Web and the Rights of Man

Shadbolt is optimistic. Speaking to TechWeekEurope, he acknowledged recent disappointing events including the NSA surveillance revealed by Edward Snowden, and the public rejection of the NHS initiative, but sees both as instances where people and governments are learning how to exist in a digital society.

“I talk in terms of the Rights of Man, and a Digital Enlightenment,” Shadbolt told us, explaining that rights such a the right to associate, and rights to privacy and security are just as important on the web as in the physical world.

It’s an interesting reference, as Paine’s Rights Of Man was a defence of popular revolution against a government which does not respect the natural rights of citizens. Edward Snowden said he stole and revealed NSA data because the US government had breached its citizens’ rights – and noted in his talk to SXSW this week that surveillance is being increasingly justified on “national interest” rather than “public interest” grounds.

Could personal data could be prompting a re-negotiation of the relationship of the state and the individual?

Shadbolt, professor of artificial intelligence at the University of Southampton, takes a British example where that is happening. The government proposed to use NHS patient data for analytics which could help with predictive and preventive medicine, but the project has been delayed after privacy protests.

A long-term advocate for open access to public data and the intelligent use of the increasing amounts of information that are stored and collected, Shadbolt is sympathetic towards citizens who refuse to trust the government for fear that their data is being exploited by commercial interests and isn’t being anonymised enough.

“If you imagine you have a medical record  which is assumed to be your property, then you have rights and responsibilities.”

Citizens should be able to give permission for whatever is done with that data, but he’s aware of the difficulty there, however, as terms and conditions on the web are already “as long and complex as the works of Shakespeare.”

Internet of things, world electronics circuit board network connection © asharkyu ShutterstockExpanding the Internet

He’s quick to point out that the Internet has yet to reach a peak or slow down. “The web has gone from one server to billions, but there are still billions more people not on it.” And the people joining now are making the biggest changes, making the web more multi-lingual and adding whole countries and demographies.

“The web is increasingly a two-language, or three-language system: English, Chinese and Spanish, but there are hundreds of languages on it.”

The extension into the Internet of things, and the addition of real-time interactions also affects things massively. Transport will be changed by tracking sensors, while sensors in our bodies will transform health, he predicted. Meanwhile, the “wearable web” will transform our interaction.

“As we connect through mobiles and things like Google Glass, it won’t be a matter of scrolling,” he said.”The link structure will be there in the back, but we will be interacting through speech and gesture.”

That side of the web, with lifelogging,will add masses of data – and also require new social conventions. For instance, lifeloggers will inevitably capture information about third parties, which should be subject to permissions from those people.

CeBit social share cloud people businessThe semantic web is dead, long live the semantic web

Famously, Berners-Lee conceived the web as an interactive medium for collaboration and co-authorship (a “read-write web”), and both he and and Shadbolt have promoted the idea of “semantic web”, in which data becomes more easy to share and re-use because it is encoded with semantic information.

The concept – outlined in 2001 – hasn’t been fully realised, but the idea of semantics or “meaningful annotations of content” lives on, Shadbolt told us, in day-to-day web practices: “The widespread use of the Google Knowledge Graph is the semantic web by any other name. The semantic web is dead; long live the semantic web.”

The fate of the Semantic Web, if anything shows the difficulty of predicting developments. Conceived halfway through the web’s short lifetime so far, it was supposed to be the way the whole web would go. Instead, it’s turned out to be a mixture of unrealised dreams, and things which are now so well established no one notices them.

No one could have foreseen that. “The whole magic of the web is the unintended consequences, the serendipity,” Shadbolt said. “That goes back to making your first web page and realising you did not know who would link to it.”

Humans as social machines

But there will be big changes, and one of the biggest will be the rise of new ways of working together.  Web scale collaborations can manage huge tasks like folding proteins and analysing galaxies, he said and in these projects, the web and the people it enables are acting as “social machines”, which is a new kind of emergent behaviour.

“It’s AI,” he said. “Not artificial intelligence, but augmented intelligence”. Connected people, embedded in an Internet of things, using some form of open data, can solve problems which would be inconceivable otherwise.

At the CeBIT event earlier this week, he found himself talking to an aircraft manufacturer who suggested attaching instruments to planes. “People pay a fortune for weather balloons and craft to monitor atmospheric conditions,” he said. “But we fly platforms through the sky already. We could put sensors on the planes and get a network measuring atmospheric change and pollution, for very little extra cost.”

Technological or social change?

Some say the real importance of the web is its social impact,but Shadbolt doesn’t see it quite like that.We asked him which is the most important thing about the web: the technology or the social change it creates?  “It is a precept of Web Science, that you can’t separate the two,” he responded.  “The socio-technical system of the web is fundamentally interlinked. If you look at one, you miss the other.

“It is very important that we think of it as a piece of technology – but the social and psychological side is every bit as important,” he said. “It would be a very boring thing if we only saw it as a machine.”

This linked evolution of machines and society is something that dates back longer than the web – in fact it goes back, via the Industrial Revolution, to first Age of Enlightenment – and that’s actually no surprise to Shadbolt.

“Why would we think the industrial revolution has stopped?” he asked.

What do you know about public sector IT? Take our quiz!