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Yes, there is an app for that!

A newly molted periodical cicada clings to the shell it emerged from. An app is available to follow the event. image credit: ChipSomodevilla/Getty Images

The Brood X cicadas have emerged in hundreds of millions from their 17 years sleep underground and are now humming on trees in the eastern part of the US. It is an amazing phenomena, but that is not really the point of my post.

The first information we have recorded goes back to 1858 when entomologists urged newspapers editors to solicit their readership to report cicadas sighting (or better hearing). Not much information was harvested. The approach was again followed in the first part of the XX century with people asked to send in postcards with their observation.

Gene Kritsky, an entomologist, set up a telephone hotline in 1987 asking, through ads in newspapers, to call a number and live voice messages. He got many of them, to the point that the tape became full. In 2004 Gene asked people to send e-mails with photo attached and got over a thousands photos.

Now he is still soliciting information and created an app, Cicada Safari (you can download it both from the Apple and Android store for free). His target was to harvest 5,000 observations/photo. In the first week the app was downloaded 180,000 times and as of June 2nd he has received 400,000 photos. He is now expecting to get over the three weeks of the BroodX cicadas life some 500,000 photos, 100 times more than his original target. These photos are being sorted by a growing team of volunteers, including his wife, to keep those that are worth keeping and create a data base.

The next major cicadas explosion is expected in Illinois in 2024 (those swarms have a life cycle of 13 years) and by that time Gene is planning to have AI doing the sorting and extracting meaning out of the thousands of photos received (that by that time are likely to be in the millions…).

What I find fascinating is the explosion of information in any field, even a very narrow one as cicadas. This explosion has already overcome our capability of management and “digestion” and we need to turn to artificial intelligence to manage the information.

It is even more than that. Through artificial intelligence we are going to create “knowledge” that would simply have been beyond our reach. This is really what I find amazing. A completely new change in paradigm of knowledge. Rather than having books that “store” our knowledge (and that was an amazing feat that has given rise to our scientific growth) we now are starting to have digital book that create knowledge in a faster and faster spiral of growth.

Some of this knowledge, a few already notice, may be beyond our capability of understanding. The whole area of elementary high energy particles exists, as knowledge, only within machines. It is based on such a huge amount of data that it would be impossible to be managed by a human (or millions of human) mind(s). And the understanding that we have of those data is based on mathematics that we can see “works” but that we really do not understand. Yet we can use the understanding created and embedded in machines to create products (many semiconductor products are based on quantum mechanics) that indeed “work”.

So it is not just that for any kind of information/service we now have, will have an app. It is also that we will be relying more and more on apps (AI) to flank our knowledge space augmenting it in a seamless way. The knowledge Society is morphing into a symbiotic knowledge Society.

About Roberto Saracco

Roberto Saracco fell in love with technology and its implications long time ago. His background is in math and computer science. Until April 2017 he led the EIT Digital Italian Node and then was head of the Industrial Doctoral School of EIT Digital up to September 2018. Previously, up to December 2011 he was the Director of the Telecom Italia Future Centre in Venice, looking at the interplay of technology evolution, economics and society. At the turn of the century he led a World Bank-Infodev project to stimulate entrepreneurship in Latin America. He is a senior member of IEEE where he leads the Industry Advisory Board within the Future Directions Committee and co-chairs the Digital Reality Initiative. He teaches a Master course on Technology Forecasting and Market impact at the University of Trento. He has published over 100 papers in journals and magazines and 14 books.