We Spy from The Sky? What There Is to Know about Us Thanks to Satellites That Orbit The Earth

Throughout history we have had that rare sensation someone looked at us from above. Some were convinced that that someone took note and helped us from time to time. We can now be certain that that’s so.

In space, there are hundreds of satellites dedicated to photograph, measure and compute all the information that can be about what happens on the surface of the Earth. Leaving the issue of pure geolocation on the sidelines, we tend to think that this information is relatively innocuous, but to what extent is this? What you know of us looking from space?

The balance of your checking account, for example

You will not surprise anyone that the Elimination of poverty, top UN sustainable development goals for the year 2030 and many other lists. It will not surprise that, despite the advances of recent decades, I is not clear that we are going to get. Among other things because We don’t have good data for combating.

A few days ago, the sustainability laboratory and Artificial Intelligence at Stanford University published in Science work that used high-resolution satellite images and machine learning for identify and predict poverty with great accuracy.

It is not a trivial matter. There are few data about wealth and poverty in countries such as Nigeria, Uganda, Tanzania and Malawi. The fundamental challenge was find a way to identify poor communities without knowing whether they were or not. At least, for sure. “There are very few sites in the world of those who know with one sufficient degree of certainty their level of wealth and poverty,” said Jean Neal, co-author of the study.

By combining images via satellite and artificial intelligence, “we can understand the medium of life, economic activity and the social structure” of the place that we decide to study

So they have combined night photos (the most illuminated by night areas tend to be more developed areas) with detailed images to examine the State of the roads or the ratio of metal roofs and straw. This the precision improves 81% algorithm.

According to David Lobell, another of the co-authors of the study, it is not just a matter of mapping. This approach enables “the understanding of the means of life, their sources of income, agriculture or the economic structure of the areas studied techniques”. Reading this has given me for thinking: More things you can see from space?

Things seen from space

In other words, we all know that information provided to us by satellite is very useful for a lot of things like the weather, gps or global traffic of boats. But beyond the geolocation (and the dangers and opportunities has) doesn’t seem that the spatial voyeurs can know a lot about us. At the end, and after the, It is not as if someone were spying from the heights, ┬┐no?

We are discovering that the geography and urban structure say more about us than we think

Yes and no. What are emphasizing works such as the University of Stanford is that, when we work on actual data, Geography becomes very important. Much more important than we thought, indeed. For centuries, we have not been able to respond satisfactorily to the question of why the wealth, population, or cultures are concentrated geographically.

But the combination of high resolution images and artificial intelligence methodologies is allowing us see in real-time how are societies in which we live. Knowledge can be used to improve health systems or algorithms to efficiently kill enemies in a war.

Drawing the future game board

But I’m not going by the branches. Extent to which can the fine analysis of the geography predict certain psychological, personal, or social characteristics If we listen to the current literature on urban sociology and environmental psychology, many things can be predicted.

We are facing a new, very powerful data mine and which had almost not thinking.

The urban framework, to the extent that facilitates or hinders certain types of social relations, It is a good indicator the identity of the inhabitants of that territory, their level of anxiety, depression or stress, and, even, of their political and social preferences.

If we include the actual flows of movement and even proxies as the State of the roads, green areas or pollution, our ability to know how are increases to the absolute limits. We are to a ‘ mine data new, very powerful and about which almost had not thinking.

Many technical, ethical, and social unknowns

The work on poverty with the began the post is only one of the first applications. They have already begun to implement this type of data and approaches in judicial proceedings and in the development of public policy. But We speak mainly of theoretical or experimental approaches, in the best of cases. Very promising, but theoretical. Algorithms are in full swing and, although success in the geographical identification of poverty can be seen as an accolade, there is still much work to do.

And many things to think about. Because the new space race may be democratizing access to space at the expense of creating serious ethical, legal and security. How compatible these technologies with the privacy and individual rights? Up to what point does sense that there is a permanent and indiscriminate CCTV in democratic societies? How can we ensure reasonable use of these methodologies? Too many unknown factors, taking into account that the truth (and the future) are out there.