It sounds like science fiction – how the personalised web could change your life

Imagine a world where your mobile phone knows when you want to wake up, even before you set an alarm. It knows your route to work and monitors traffic along the way, guiding you through the most efficient route. In your lunch break, you get food recommendations based on your past eating habits and current health. When you get home, your smart thermostat has heated the house to your preferred temperature and your TV has remembered that you love to watch an episode of the Big Bang Theory after work.

It might sound like science fiction, but it is all part of the so-called big data revolution. This revolution is happening invisibly in the background, thanks to technological shifts such as increased broadband access, constantly connected devices and sensors of all kind. It is fed by the Internet of Things – everyday objects connected to the internet become part of a network that gathers and stores data about us. With this data, our mobile phones, computers and other connected devices can start to predict what we will do next and automate things we would have in the past done manually.

Three different categories of data will help to personalise your web experience: your social, product and interest graphs. Social means your friends or the people you interact with in business and private, the content you exchange in social networks and any locations you “check into”. Product means the things you buy on eBay, the films you watch on Netflix or the hotels you book online. Interest means the sort of things you search for on Google or the things you “like” on. All of this data reveals a lot about your economic status, your opinions and the things you like to do. In the future, trends and patterns filtered out of that data will predict your behaviour and personalise your online experience.

By automating certain aspects of your daily life, the personalised web will allow you to spend more time and energy on the things you’re really interested in. Semantic searches and filtering, for example, will mean only the results you need at that specific moment will show up, saving you from navigating through large amounts of unsorted data. Your social graph will make it easier to connect with people with similar interests.

The personalised web also offers enormous advantages for businesses. The more companies know about your interests in products or services, the easier it is for them to target advertising, news, content, products and promotions – therefore increasing their chances of making a sale. My own company, Adtelligence, is active in this area, using machine algorithms to optimise e-commerce businesses.

Of course, the personalised web will not be without its challenges. The US’s National Security Agency scandal highlighted today’s technical abilities of collecting and storing data about individuals, raising questions about privacy and personal freedom. Regarding personalisation, critics argue that the algorithmic editing of the web affects the tuning out of information that doesn’t align with our prevailing view of the world.

The answer to that problem lies not in turning back time to an unfiltered internet but instead in fostering a digital literacy among users, hence empowering them to understand the technological mechanisms behind personalisation and the advantages and disadvantages of this technocultural shift. Like in so many other fields, education is fundamental to cope with these challenges.

If we find a way to deal with these challenges, we stand to gain a lot from the personalised web. By making life easier and automating routine actions and decisions, we free up huge amounts of time to do valuable things that could have a positive impact on our lives and on those around us.

Michael Altendorf is the CEO and co-founder of Adtelligence, a World Economic Forum Technology Pioneer company.

This article was first published on the World Economic Forum blog