Tycho Brahe, 1546-1601, was an eccentric Danish nobleman with a nose made of bronze. He also spent 35 years painstakingly measuring of the motion of the stars – observations that would go on to provide Johannes Kepler the empirical evidence necessary to confirm his theory that the planets moved not in circular orbits, but elliptical ones.
Brahe could, arguably, be described as the first proponent of big data (for comparison, Copernicus made just 17 celestial observations before publishing his heliocentric theory). His commitment to regular, accurate measurements was unprecedented, and he used this data to make far more precise predictions of planetary paths than had ever been achieved before.
The concept behind modern ‘smart’ technologies is exactly the same, but the volume of data is bigger. A lot bigger.
We’re gonna need a bigger byte
Historically, utility companies collected four readings from a home each year. With a smartmeter installed, they can collect 35,000.
Each day, 294 billion emails are sent, and four petabytes of data are uploaded to Facebook, including 350 million photos and 100 million hours of video.
Five billion searches are made, 3.5 billion of them on Google. By 2020, it is estimated that 28 petabytes of data will be generated by wearable devices every day.
All this means more data to feed into increasingly powerful machine learning algorithms that will in turn make increasingly accurate predictions, not about the orbit of Jupiter but about us.
Our digital footprints can be analysed to reveal a great deal about our preferences, interests, behaviour patterns and performance.
The use of this information to generate revenue has become known as “surveillance capitalism”, and without regulation it has some troubling consequences. Big Data isn’t just about making shoe adverts follow us around the internet: the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica scandal shows that it can influence elections, and in China the dystopian-sounding “Social Credit System” is becoming a reality.
On top of this, as AI-driven image manipulation develops, false videos of almost undetectable quality called “deepfakes” are on the rise. At the moment they primarily threaten public figures because there is more film data of them available to feed the AI, but as the technology evolves this might become a risk for anyone.
The battle between governments and big data companies will be an important aspect of how our society develops in the coming years.
Reasons to be cheerful
Big data isn’t all about omniscient mega-corporations harvesting our data in order to better manipulate our actions for profit; it offers some genuinely exciting and world-changing benefits.
The first is increased efficiency. As more information about an industry becomes available, the weak links are thrown into sharp relief. In the utilities sector, this offers substantial opportunities to reduce waste: water companies can pinpoint leaks, energy companies can better predict demand so won’t overgenerate, and wind and solar farms can be built in the perfect spot.
The second is health. Preventative healthcare is about recognising the risks of fatal conditions early enough to safely (and cheaply) reduce them. Vaccinations are a form of preventative healthcare, as is breast cancer screening, and encouraging a healthy lifestyle also works to reduce the risk of early deaths.
The next revolution in preventative healthcare will come from wearable devices capable of picking up medical anomalies before the patient is even aware of them. An irregular heartbeat revealed by a Fitbit is an obvious example, but the possibilities for this technology are almost unimaginable.
We will soon be capable of knowing more about ourselves than ever before. The caveat is, so will many businesses.
Questions for business leaders to think about
Where in my supply chain could more information lead to efficiency savings?
Am I using data legally and ethically?
Is my corporate reputation strategy ready for the risk of deepfakes?