SAN JOSE, Calif.—A panel of industry experts here debated the merits and impact of big data following a preview of an hourlong documentary on the topic that will premiere nationally on PBS channels Feb. 24.
The documentary, The Human Face of Big Data, is based in part on the coffee table book of the same name that came out in 2012. But Rick Smolan, co-author and driving force behind the book, says the movie, directed by his brother Sandy Smolan, presents fresh examples of big data in action in fields such as health care and government and only refers to about 20 percent of the book’s content.
“Our goal with this project was to spark a global conversation about the human aspects of big data— and how it is changing our lives for better and worse,” said Sandy Smolan. The movie preview Feb. 9 at the Montgomery Theater here included a panel discussion among industry thought leaders on the topic of “using big data for good.”
The primary backer of the documentary was EMC with support from Cisco Systems, SAP and FedEx.
The panel participants and attendees noted that the rapid adoption and wide application of big data analytics are making the technology almost a household term.
Panel moderator Michael Malone, a journalist and Silicon Valley historian, said that big data has more range than any new technology he’s ever seen. “I already see it impacting health and medicine, transportation, natural sciences, cosmology, retail, consumer customization, conservation, weather forecasting and defense. And I’m sure there are a hundred more areas I could think of.”
“The idea of big data has been floating in the mainstream for quite some time,” Tim Bajarin, president of IT industry analyst Creative Strategies and an attendee of the big data panel session, told eWEEK.
“But now there is more understanding of its impact thanks to things like the book and the movie that clarifies how all this data is being collected and how it impacts or lives. It’s a big challenge to make sense of it all,” Bajarin said.
The impact is why companies such as SAP, a sponsor of the movie and a panel participant, are so heavily involved in big data, he noted.
Panelist Quentin Clark, chief business officer at SAP, said that although we talk about big data as an aspect of computing now, in five to 10 years the term will fade away. “Big data will be the state of computing. We’re not going to separate it out,” he said.
During the panel, Vint Cerf, co-designer of the Internet and chief Internet evangelist at Google, warned that big data may not be as useful over time if it’s not stored and handled properly. He warned of a “digital dark age” where older data is no longer interpretable because there’s no record of what it is and how it was recorded. “It may no longer be readable as operating systems evolve,” said Cerf.
A lot of the discussion focused on health care, which Rick Smolan, who is not only co-author of the book but is also the producer of the “Big Data” movie, said seemed to be the area impacting people the most.
Panel Debates Ideas Covered in ‘Human Face of 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.