The Numerati

And the rest of us? We should grasp the basics of math and statistics-certainly better than most of us do today-but still follow what we love. The world doesn't need millions of mediocre mathematicians, and there's plenty of opportunity for specialists in other fields. Even in the heart of opportunity for specialists in other fields. Even in the heart of the math economy, at IBM Research, geometers and engineers work on teams with linguists and anthropologists and cognitive psychologists. They detail the behavior of humans to those who are trying to build mathematical models of it. All of these ventures, from Samer Takriti's gang at IBM to the secretive researchers laboring behind the barricades at the National Security Agency, feed from the knowledge and smarts of diverse groups. The key to finding a place on such world-class teams is not necessarily to become a math whiz but to become a whiz at something. And that something should be in an area that sparks the most enthusiasm and creativity within each of us. Somewhere on those teams, of course, whether it's in advertising, publishing, counterterrorism, or medical research, there will be at least a few Numerati. They'll be the ones distilling this knowledge into numbers and symbols and feeding them to their powerful tools.

Because our information travels by itself, untethered from our bodies,machines can forge and plagiarize human communication on a massive scale. This poses a never-ending human challenge in the world of the Numerati: the better automatic systems understand us, the better they can pretend to be us.

Consider this: Google grew into a multibillion-dollar sensation by helping us find the right Web page. How much more valuable will it be, in every conceivable industry, to find the right person? That information is worth fortunes, and the personal data we throw off draws countless paths straight to our door. Even if you hold back your name, it's a cinch to find you. A Carnegie Mellon University study recently showed that simply by disclosing gender, birth date, and postal zip code, 87 percent of people in the United States could be pinpointed by name.

Decades ago, I'm told, my sister-in-law...was stepping out of the shower in the bathroom of her all-women's dorm, and she heard the call "Men on the floor!" At many schools, this would have been a non-event, but she was in a highly conservative religious college. She was naked. She had only a small towel to cover herself, and there were men prowling the hallways. She could hear them. She waited, but they didn't go away. So she began to think about which part of her body to cover with the towel. It barely fit across her bottom or her top. It certainly didn't cover both. She had to make a choice. Finally, she had an inspired idea. She threw the towel over her head and scampered naked to her room. Given the options, it was more important for her to cloak her identity than her body.

Ever hear of garbage in, garbage out?" His point is that mathematicians model misunderstandings of the world, often using the data at hand instead of chasing down the hidden facts. He tells the story of a drunk looking for his keys on a dark night under a streetlight. He's looking for them under that lamp not necessarily because he dropped them there but because it's the only place with light.

Fisher outlines the different hormones and personalities for me. Those with lots of dopamine, she says, are likely to be "Explorers," optimistic risk takers. Serotonin breeds "Builders," who tend to be calm and organized and work well in groups. Those brimming with testosterone she calls "Directors." Two thirds of them are men. They're analytical, logical, and often musical. (They sound suspiciously like Numerati to me.) In the fourth group, their brains coursing with estrogen, are the negotiators. They're verbal and intuitive, and have good people skills. You'd think they'd be built for relationships. But sometimes, Fisher says, "they're so pliable that they turn into placaters. You don't know who they are.

Fisher says that in the late 1990s she began looking into the biology of personality, the genes, neurotransmitters, and specifically, the hormones. She did this in part by studying brain scans of "romantically obsessed" people. Her theory is that four different hormones-estrogen, testosterone, dopamine, and serotonin-mold our personalities and that we look for people who complement us, who provide what we're missing. Her questionnaire is designed to divide us into four different types, each one with a dominant hormone. Some of the questions focus on the moods and personalities she associates with each hormone. Others, such as the question about the length of our fingers, zero in on the chemical itself. Research shows, she says, that those with an index finger shorter than the ring finger have often been exposed to more testosterone while in the womb, while those with longer index fingers will have more estrogen.

He tells me of experiments his team is developing to monitor the spark of recognition in the brain as people look at online ads. The test focus on a brain wave called P300. (The U.S. Navy has run similar tests to see how pilots distinguish friends from foes in the air.) If a P300 wave heats up within a fraction of a second of a subject's seeing an ad, the Tacoda team will make the case that the viewer has not only looked at the spot but has processed it mentally. The next step? Figuring out which type of people process certain types of ads. Like other Numerati in a wide range of industries, Dave Morgan in scrutinizing humans and searching for hidden correlations. What do we do, he asks, that might predict what we'll do next?

In a workplace defined by metrics, even those of us who like to think that we're beyond measurement will face growing pressure to build our case with numbers of our own.

In universities and pharmaceutical labs around the world, computer scientists and computational biologists are designing algorithms to sift through billions of gene sequences, looking for links between certain genetic markers and diseases. The goal is to help us sidestep the diseases we're most likely to contract and to provide each one of us with a cabinet of personalized medicines. Each one should include just the right dosage and the ideal mix of molecules for our bodies. Between these two branches of research, genetic and behavioral, we're being parsed, inside and out. Even the language of the two fields is similar. In a nod to geneticists, Dishman and his team are working to catalog what they call our "behavioral markers." The math is also about the same. Whether they're scrutinizing our strands of DNA or our nightly trips to the bathroom, statisticians are searching for norms, correlations, and anomalies. Dishman prefers his behavioral approach, in part because the market's less crowded. "There are a zillion people looking at biology," he says, "and too few looking at behavior." His gadgets also have an edge because they can provide basic alerts from day one. The technology indicating whether a person gets out of bed, for example, isn't much more complicated than the sensor that automatically opens a supermarket door. But that nugget of information is valuable. Once we start installing these sensors, and the electronics companies get their foot in the door, the experts can start refining the analysis from simple alerts to sophisticated predictions-perhaps preparing us for the onset of Parkinson's disease or Alzheimer's.

Jack Einhorn, the chief scientist at a New York media start-up called Inform Technologies, predicts that the great discoveries of the twenty-first century will come from finding patterns in vast archives of data. "The next Jonas Salk will be a mathematician," he says, "not a doctor.

My wife and I, we learn later in the afternoon, are both Explorer-Negotiators. (Each person gets a dominant and a secondary label.) This sounds promising enough. "You tend to be focused and resourceful, and you are able to juggle a lot of projects at the same time," I read. As a result, we're both "sometimes a whirlwind of activity." But a pairing of Explorers, Fisher warns me, can be risky. "Explorers fly off in different directions the minute they get bored," she says. "They get into relationships fast, wonder how they got there, and then try to weasel their way out.

Now, according to Business Week, 94 percent of U.S. corporations ask for electronic resumes. They use software to sift through them, picking out a selection of "finalists" for human managers to consider. What does the software look for? That's what we have to figure out. Some pick out certain words-MBA, Harvard, Excel, fluent Mandarin. Others look for more sophisticated combinations. Plenty of consultants are on call to sell us inside tips. The point is that when we want to be found, whether we're looking for money or love, we must make ourselves intelligible to machines. We need good page rank. We must fit ourselves to algorithms.

Okay. Maybe each of us really needs a no-nonsense Builder to keep our finances in order, map our vacations, and make sure the cats have their latest battery of rabies shots. Perhaps that would make sense. But is that what our hearts secretly ache for? As Fisher starts out, her evidence is mostly anecdotal. She describes a classic match. Picture a hard-driving man, a fabulously successful business executive. He bangs heads, slashes the payroll, drives would-be challengers into oblivion. This guy gets things done. He's a Director. And chances are, FIsher says, he has a smooth-talking, problem solving wife, who quietly patches together all the friendships he shatters. She's a Negotiator. Those two types, Fisher says, "are very symbiotic. They will gravitate toward each other.

Our movements with a cell phone can paint an in-depth profile for each of us, each one endlessly more detailed than those forms my wife and I filled out for Chemistry.com. If we give them permission to examine us the way Dan Andresen and his team study their cows, they can scrutinize our movements and social networks. They can map the DNA of our behavior.

People leave personality footprints everywhere, Fisher tells me, even in the sentences they write. She gives me common words used by each group. Explorers use words like excite, spirit, dream, fire, and search, while more community-minded Negotiators talk about links, bonds, love, team, and participate. Builders are more liable to discuss law, honor, limits, and honesty. And that Numerati-infested bucket of Directors? Their words focus largely on the physical world, where aim, measure, strong, hard, and slash have currency. Not surprisingly, they also talk a lot about "thinking.

Statistics indicate, as she predicted, that Negotiators gravitate towards Directors, and vice versa. Explorers are attracted to Negotiators. No-nonsense Builders are often drawn to Explorers, who help them "lighten up," Fisher says. But just as often, Builders opt for a less combustible combination and seek out their own kind. With these insights, she can refine the recommendations-and perhaps lead the system to help me find my wife.

The Numerati too, are grappling with towering complexity. They're looking for patterns in data that describe something almost hopelessly complex: human life and behavior. The audacity of their mission is almost maddening. They're going to figure out who we're likely to vote for, who we want to work with, perhaps even who we're best suited to love, all from the statistical patterns of data? It's the height of presumption, and it leads to humbling disappointments. Like the trees growing in the forests of Minnesota, we confound those who try to categorize us, and we do it most of the time without even trying. Life is complex.

This is something we humans have been doing since our early days as bipeds. Gaming systems is our specialty. We figure out how things work. Then we calculate the necessary steps so that they work for us.

What's new, of course, is that many of these "things" the Numerati are busy counting are people. They're adding us up every which way, and they have all of humanity to model. The rise of this counting elite will convulse entire industries. It's already happening. At the same time, I suspect it will lead many of us to give more thought to who we are. As we encounter mathematical models built to predict our behavior and divine our deepest desires, it's only human for each of us to ask, "Did they get it right? Is that really me?