A new computer project from the U.K. will use big data to predict you when you will die. The four-year research project will take the data collected by health providers and extract from it the life expectancy of the persons therein. What it won’t be doing is giving you, the reader, an exact time, date, and cause of death, because that’s still science fiction.
The research, from the University of East Anglia in the U.K., will use the data it collects to identify trends in death. That is, given the vast pool of data available from health care providers, who like to know everything then can about you, the researchers will be able to see how things like drugs and lifestyle choices affect us.
"We want to identify and quantify the key factors affecting mortality and longevity, such as lifestyle choices, medical conditions and medical interventions," says lead researcher Elena Kulinskaya.
Teasing out such information from the sea of data will benefit health insurers, because they’ll have a more accurate idea of when their marks are due to pop their clogs. But knowing how particular drugs, treatments, and habits affect us long-term will help doctors to tailor treatments not just for short-term cures but also to improve life expectancy.
"When we talk about big data what we mean is data that is vast, complex, and difficult to analyze," says Kulinskaya. "We want to be able to use it to see statistical life expectancy trends, based on large-scale population-based data collected over the long term."
But the study is also useful for you and me. While it can’t predict our individual deaths, which is a terrifying thought anyway—what if it only gave you a week?—the model will be "true on average," giving us a good idea of how long we can expect to live.
Kulinskaya gives a rather mundane example of how this knowledge could benefit us. "[To] be able to plan for retirement, and to understand how much you can spend, it is good to have some idea of your life expectancy," she says. Given that the research is funded by the Institute and Faculty of Actuaries, an educational body dedicated to calculating insurance risks and premiums, that’s less surprising.
Knowing when you are likely to die is some pretty scary information, but if it can help us to change our lifestyles to give a longer life, then that initial scare might be worth it. Who knows? Maybe having a rough date for our eventual expiration might have a bigger jolt on our behavior than all the anti-smoking, pro-fitness advice we ignore almost daily.