"The world is one big data problem."
Andrew McAfee, principal research scientist at MIT and author of Race Against the Machine, said that's a sentiment he keeps hearing in recent meetings in Silicon Valley.
"There's a bit of arrogance in that, and a bit of truth as well," he told the Enterprise 2.0 Boston 2012 conference audience in a Wednesday morning keynote presentation.
Can you address any problem effectively once you have masses of data? Enterprise 2.0 and social technologies are feeding big data analysis, providing new and more personal data points. Embedded sensors in everything from athletic clothing to cars feed big data pools and research that was not possible before, as consultant and InformationWeek guest columnist Vinnie Mirchandani recently detailed. Big data analysis based on Hadoop platform tools is challenging traditional business intelligence wisdom, particularly in retail industries.
While enterprise use of big data analysis can solve tough business problems, some individuals may find big data analysis deeply unsettling to their own career prospects.
Here's the bad news, according to McAfee: Computers are getting smarter all the time. IBM's Watson computer proved it could beat the most talented humans at Jeopardy trivia questions, but that's really just the beginning, McAfee pointed out. He cited Narrative Science, a company that generates news prose from a computer algorithm, in effect replacing reporters, to write basic news stories. Computers have also shown in research studies that they can beat pathologists at reading slides to detect signs of cancer, McAfee said.
[ See our special report: Enterprise 2.0 Boston 2012.]
We were never all that good.
"We kind of come out on the losing end over and over again," McAfee said. Using big data techniques, algorithms can predict questions including how good this year's crop of Bordeaux wine will turn out and how the Supreme Court will decide pending cases, he noted. Big data analysis can outdo purchasing experts, who have spent years learning nuances of vendor strategies and contracts, he said.
In a group of 136 man-versus-machine studies that he examined, humans won in just eight cases. The kisser: This was before the era of big data, he said. The computers likely did not have enough data.
"I kind of see our robot overlords and computer overlords getting smarter and smarter," McAfee said. "Are we all thoroughly depressed about this?" he asked the audience, prompting wry laughs.