alex_sandy_pentland's picture
Professor of Computer Science, MIT; Director, MIT Connection Science and Human Dynamics labs; Author, Social Physics
Computer Scientist, MIT Media Laboratory

The Human Nervous System Has Come Alive

Ten years ago, half of humanity had never made a phone call and only 20% of humanity had regular access to communications.  Today 70% of humanity can place a telephone call or, more likely, send an SMS message… to the Secretary General of the United Nations, or to most anyone else.   For the first time the majority of humanity is connected and has a voice.

Adults in Western culture fail to appreciate the momentous nature of this change because our mindsets are tied to lumbering legacy technologies like PCs and laptops.  But in most countries, and for virtually all youth, the way to maintain your social network and run your business is by cell phone. 

Digital connections allow public services to be transformed.  In much of Africa, health workers survey the spread of disease, advise expectant mothers, and coordinate health services by digital messaging over cell phones.  In tests, the digital system is both ten times faster than the old paper system—allowing health workers to nip epidemics in the bud—and ten times cheaper, despite the fact that phones cost more than paper. 

Governance is also being transformed.   Not only have the heads of governments been brought down by SMS-organized protests, but multilateral organizations such as the WTO have been brought to account as well.  More subtle, but perhaps even more important, the traceable nature of digital transactions means that banking and government services offered by cell phone are more transparent and accountable than the older systems.   An example of this capability in action is that governments such as India claim that the vast majority of captured terrorists have been identified through cell phone transactions. 

Perhaps most importantly connection means improved efficiency and greater wealth. In some parts of Africa and south Asia, banking is done by moving around the money in cell phone accounts and people pay for vegetables and taxi rides by SMS.  Because remanufactured cell phones cost $10 in the developing world and incoming messages are free, every stratum of society is connected.  Day laborers, for instance, no longer hang around a street corner waiting to be picked for work.  Instead, job offers arrive by SMS from a computerized clearing house.  The International Telecommunications Union estimates that in the poorest countries each additional cell phone installed adds $3000 to the GDP, primarily due to the increased efficiency of business processes.

My conclusion is that is that the human race finally has a working nervous system, and that the poor and disenfranchised are for the first time beginning to make themselves heard and felt.  To accelerate this process, we have established the Program for Developmental Entrepreneurship at MIT (web.mit.edu/de), which helps form, fund, and scale in-country efforts that leverage these new capabilities.  The possibilities opened up by humanity's new nervous system are unprecedented, and reason for great optimism.