Debates are raging about whether big data still holds the promise that was expected or whether it was just a big bust. The failure of the much-hyped Google Flu Trends to accurately predict peak flu levels since August 2011 has heightened the concerns.
In my mind, there is no doubt that data analytics will one day help to improve health care and crime detection, design better products, and improve traffic patterns and agricultural yields. My concern is about how we will one day use all the data we are gathering — and the skeletons it will uncover. Think about how DNA technology is being used to free people who were wrongfully imprisoned decades ago. Imagine what supercomputers of the future could do with the data that present-day data gatherers haven’t yet learned to use.
Over the centuries, we gathered data on things such as climate, demographics, and business and government transactions. Our farmers kept track of the weather so that they would know when to grow their crops; we had land records so that we could own property; and we developed phone books so that we could find people. About 15 years ago we started creating Web pages on the Internet. Interested parties started collecting data about what news we read, where we shopped, what sites we surfed, what music we listened to, what movies we watched, and where we traveled to. With the advent of LinkedIn, MySpace, Facebook, Twitter and many other social-media tools, we began to volunteer private information about our work history and social and business contacts and what we like — our food, entertainment, even our sexual preferences and spiritual values.
Today, data are accumulating at exponentially increasing rates. There are more than 100 hours of video uploaded to YouTube every minute, and even more video is being collected worldwide through the surveillance cameras that you see everywhere. Mobile-phone applications are keeping track of our every movement: everywhere we go; how fast we move; what time we wake. Soon, devices that we wear or that are built into our smartphones will monitor our body’s functioning; our sequenced DNA will reveal the software recipe for our physical body.