Panel Debates Ideas Covered in 'Human Face of Big Data' Documentary

By David Needle  |  Posted 2016-02-13 Print this article Print
Big Data Documentary

Linda Avey, a biologist and co-founder of the DNA testing company 23andMe, said we're only at the early stages of being able to understand our body's activities. "In terms of what can be measured, our bodies generate exabytes of data even on an hourly basis," she said. "There is a whole new set of learning to come from these sensors and devices people are wearing. And now that we're able to capture the data, the question always comes back to what do we do with it?"

Avey said the collection of health care data via wearables and other means promises to "redefine disease" and help launch an era of personalized and precision medicine.

Smolan noted that many drugs are uselessly stuck on the shelf waiting for Federal Drug Administration approval because a small percentage of people have adverse reactions to them. When Steve Jobs had pancreatic cancer, he paid $100,000 to get his genome sequenced. Today that procedure costs about $300 and in the film geneticist Francis Collins says it's eventually going to drop to $10 and you'll be able to do it at your local pharmacy.

Smolan says this will enable more personalized versions of currently unapproved drugs that avoid the side effects. "Big data is going to free up all of those drugs," said Smolan.

Launching Big Data

Interestingly, Smolan said the idea for the book came out of a conversation he had at a conference three years ago with Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer when she was still a Google executive.

"Some of us think we're watching the planet evolve as a nervous system," Smolan recalled Mayer telling him. "With all our smartphones and devices and Google searches, there's this real-time information loop we've never had before as a species."

The movie includes a series of academic and tech industry figures discussing the various ways big data is changing society. It also features several real-life examples such as the hospital where data collected with sensors connected to babies born prematurely revealed a pattern of symptoms that now helps doctors keep the babies healthier.

While the movie is generally positive about the impact and potential of big data, it also touches on the issues of privacy and other negative implications.

The movie's narrator, actor Joel McHale, sets the stage with this opening statement:

"In the near future every object on Earth will be generating data including our homes, our cars, even our bodies. Almost everything we do today leaves a trail of digital exhaust, a perpetual stream of text, location data and other information that will live on well after each of us is long gone. We are now being exposed to as much information in a single day as our 15th century ancestors were exposed to in their entire lifetimes.

"But we need to be very careful because in this vast ocean of data there is a frighteningly complete picture of us—where we live, where we go, what we buy, what we say. It's all being recorded forever. This is the story of an extraordinary revolution that's sweeping almost invisibly through our lives."

Perhaps these impacts will be a bit less invisible after the movie's release.



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