SAN FRANCISCO—The term big data gets tossed around a lot these days, but it’s not always clear what it refers to. An executive with online travel giant Expedia gave a real-world example here, noting there are more than 65 million ways to travel from Los Angeles to New York.
“It’s an infinite data problem, and getting you, the traveler, what you want is where the magic comes in,” said David Doctorow, chief marketing and strategy officer at Expedia.
Doctorow spoke at a panel here at Connect 2016, a one-day technology conference on Jan. 14 sponsored by China’s Cheetah Mobile.
The big data panel included Geng Lin, engineering lead for emerging technologies and markets at Google Access. Geng’s group is working on ways to connect the 3 billion people currently not on the Internet.
As for big data, Lin said it’s a huge opportunity, but the biggest bottleneck to making better use of it is the shortage of data scientists. “Part of the issue is on the education side because there isn’t a single discipline called ‘data science’; people come to it from areas like statistics and applied math,” he said. “I would urge and expect the education system to take on this challenge in the next five years.”
Juggs Ravalia, vice president of platforms at Yandex, an Internet company that operates Russia’s largest search engine, said advances in big data, machine learning and AI, along with cheaper computing, have brought us to “an inflection point” where there are virtually no limits to what big data might do. “We’re at an inflection point where we might have breakthroughs in general intelligence and how to deal with issues like poverty.” On the other hand, he warned, there’s also the possibility the machines will become so intelligent that humans will “become like pets to technology.”
The optimistic view of the potential of big data was seconded by Viktor Mayer-Shonberger, professor of Internet governance and regulation at the Oxford Internet Institute. “I strongly believe we are at the cusp of a new era, a new way of understanding the world and governments should focus on the opportunity and the risks involved,” said Mayer-Shonberger.
Moderator Quentin Hardy, deputy technology editor of The New York Times, noted that several large companies, such as Google and Uber, are collecting massive quantities of data and that perhaps we should be concerned that only a handful of big companies might one day own people’s data for competitive advantage.
But Mayer-Shonberger said applying the ways we think about owning property to owning data is ill-advised. “What we need is some kind of rights where people can share their information, and there is liquidity of data in the markets without it being a transaction that people have no control of,” he said.
In later remarks during a solo presentation, Mayer-Shonberger said advances in big data have turned our traditional way of analyzing data upside down. “Collecting and analyzing data has always been time-consuming and costly,” he said. As a result, traditionally, most of the insights we’ve attained come from the least amount of data, or what he referred to as “small data.”
Experts Debate Big Data, Al Gore Talks Tech
Mayer-Shonberger gave several examples of companies leveraging big data, including DuoLingo, which offers an app for learning foreign languages using your smartphone. The app is used by millions of people daily. The company decided to analyze the data it was collecting to see if there were any patterns of interest. One thing they found was that Spanish speakers using the app to learn English did very well until they reached a particular lesson. When DuoLingo moved that lesson farther back in the sequence, the success rate went way up.
“This wasn’t their intent, but it’s what the data told them,” said Mayer-Shonberger. “It wasn’t finding a needle in a haystack because they didn’t know what the needle was. When we can let the data speak, we can use it to generate some really intriguing questions.”
Former Vice President Al Gore Weighs In
Al Gore (pictured) spoke earlier and told the audience of mobile developers and others that there are now more mobile devices in the world than people and it’s changed our way of thinking.
“I find when I’m trying to remember something, instead of thinking too hard about it, I’ll just look it up on the Internet if I have a mobile device with me,” he said. “We are connected to this global mind on a regular basis. One study I saw said that over half of us look at these devices when we wake up before we do anything else.”
While acknowledging many in the world don’t have Internet connectivity, Gore noted that most people do and that, within five years, there will be as many as 50 billion intelligent devices exchanging data and communication. “Intelligence is being distributed throughout the physical world leading to changes and developments that are hard to predict,” he said.
The former U.S. vice president suggested that advances in artificial intelligence could do a lot to help us analyze and better leverage the huge stores of big data being accumulated.