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The Future of...

Systems of Intimacy- Science Fiction Made Real

I’m lucky enough to have one of those jobs where you are meant to be ‘intimate’ with the future. Someone once accused me of being a futurist! Of course prediction is risky as the future is unknowable, at least according to current science. So it’s always fun to explore predicting the future through the lens of fiction, for example Philip K. Dick’s Minority Report, with its precogs, or Isaac Asimov and his Foundation series. Minority Report was somewhat fantastical, and in many ways a philosophical discussion around predeterminism, but Asimov’s Foundation series toyed with a concept called psychohistory which “combines history, sociology, and mathematical statistics to make general predictions about the future behavior of very large groups of people”[1]. If that sounds like big data and predictive analytics, it’s because, in many ways it is. 75 years after Asimov coined the term, science fiction is becoming everyday reality as we build Systems of Intimacy that are capable of realizing aspects of his imagination, and much more besides.

When we think about how the use of technology has evolved, we see a shift in emphasis away from optimizing the way we have always done things, to doing things in fundamentally new and different ways. Over the last 10 years, friction-free access to essentially commoditized IT services, through cloud computing, has enabled organizations to transform themselves. Where once technology budgets were mostly spent on optimization and keeping the lights on, they are now being invested in driving differentiation and unique advantage. Understanding what differentiates, and knowing how to drive it, is gained through intimacy, or perhaps more prosaically, closeness, with customers, employees, the world around you, the things you build and manage, and so forth. If you are a retailer, you want to be intimate with your customer. You’d like to know who buys what, when, and where, so that you can offer them something they might like, or an accessory for something they bought in the past. If you run a factory you need intimacy with your production line, so that you can direct resources to the right place at the right time, or detect and fix machines that are about to break. These are just a couple of examples.

Intimacy is gained through interactions, and almost all interactions are now conducted digitally: through web sites or mobile applications if you are a retailer; through sensors if you run a factory or maintain a jet engine. The shift of interactions and processes into the digital domain leads us to the notion of the digitalization of business, of which, more another time. Each digital interaction yields data. Lots of data! This data can then be used to gain intimacy. Intimacy with the past: data warehouses, big data; with the present: real-time streaming analytics; and with the future through simulation. It is these Systems of Intimacy that are driving real change.

As an example, let’s look at the world of media – films, television, etc. Unlike the terrestrial broadcasters, Netflix knows who watches what, when, where, how, and on what device. They have greater intimacy with their customers. Thus they were able to determine that a significant proportion of people like to watch television series as marathons. This insight enabled them to differentiate themselves as they moved into the world of content creation, through releasing all of the episodes of a series at once.

Expanding the previous example of the factory production line. A production line will typically have a large number of robots, automated conveyor belts, etc. Each of these components may have 10s or 100s of actuators (digitally controlled motors for example) and sensors. This is the Internet of Things made real. Data from all of these are collected. The historical data can be analyzed to learn about patterns and behavior. These patterns can then be used as the basis to process data in real-time, i.e. real-time streaming analytics, to look for patterns indicating that a robot is about to fail. And ultimately they can be used to define a model, or simulation, of the production line so that you can do “what-if” analysis, to explore the potential impact of changes on the virtual production line, before actually changing something in the real world. This drives convergence on an optimal outcome, in the least amount of time, with little risk, by doing all of the changes on the virtual production line, before settling on the change likely to provide the most impact in the real world.

The impact of these Systems of Intimacy can be felt, even on a warm Sunday morning at my home near Santa Cruz. For some reason I was tempted to buy something from an e-commerce site. This happens often! I ordered the item at 9 AM in the morning. At 11 AM I heard the doorbell and went to find my item already on the doorstep. The retailer clearly knew me, and people like me, together with the likely demand for said item amongst the demographic in my neighborhood. And so they pre-pushed it to a distribution center nearby. And by the way the item wasn’t a particularly common item, so it wouldn’t have been obvious to simply stock it everywhere.

These Systems of Intimacy are working their way into every aspect of our lives, and of our work. And they are the latest in a line of systems that mark progress along the road of digitalization:

  • Systems of Record – Systems of Record are focused on data, specifically on providing an authoritative source for that data. From Wikipedia, “A system of record (SOR) or Source System of Record (SSoR) is Data Management term for an information storage system (commonly implemented on a computer system) that is the authoritative data source for a given data element or piece of information.”
  • Systems of Engagement – Systems of Engagement are about connecting people, with each other, with applications, and with data. Systems of Engagement are made possible by the confluence of mobile, cloud, big data and social. “Systems of engagement are different from the traditional systems of record that log transactions and keep the financial accounting in order: They focus on people, not processes….These new systems harness a perfect storm of mobile, social, cloud, and big data innovation to deliver apps and smart products directly in the context of the daily lives and real-time workflows of customers, partners, and employees.”[2]
  • Systems of Intimacy – Systems of Intimacy are about understanding people and things, the relationships between them, and how these vary with time, so as to predict the future. And they are used to personalize and specialize interactions in real-time, within a broad context. Systems of Intimacy are enabled by the convergence of Big Data, Cloud Computing, Social Networks, Mobile and the Internet of Things, and they are focused on:
    • The Past – Data warehousing and big data analytics
    • The Present – Real-time streaming analytics
    • The Future – Simulation and predictive analytics

This intimacy with the future brings us back to Asimov’s psychohistory. Systems of Intimacy are already enabling a just-in-time world, JIT life if you will, where things, software, data, and services are anticipated, instantiated and offered to you just before you need them. So we are able to predict potential impact at a very fine level of granularity, within the broad context. Today’s Systems of Intimacy can’t quite predict the future of civilization yet, but they can predict, with a reasonable degree of probability, where I’ll be tonight, and what I might like for dinner. Which is good, because I haven’t got a clue!


[1] – Wikipedia –
[2] –