By the standards of a decade ago, each one of us probably owns two or three supercomputers. And with all that raw power comes the ability to gather massive amounts of data. There's only one problem: Most of that data is garbage. No empire was ever built on 500,000 pictures of cute cats and a Twitter feed about the many uses of avocados.
Speaking at The Atlantic's Big Science Summit on Oct. 30, a wide variety of presenters returned to the theme of Big Data. Whether it's exploring black holes or streamlining e-commerce, the ability to access, interpret, and synthesize vast volumes of relevant information is the key to success.
Take air travel, for instance, which is both one of the most valuable and the most infuriating of all modern conveniences. Speaking at the Big Science Summit, NASA's Parimal Kopardekar spoke about his goal of "[reducing] total cost of air transportation by allowing more aircraft in the sky at the same time, allowing more efficient arrivals." Doing this involves improving routes and flight plans on the fly as conditions change. Using weather forecasts, ground-based radar, satellite-based information, and sensors on the aircraft themselves will allow air traffic controllers to "fuse all the information from the aircraft and the ground and the trajectories and the airspace and figure out the clean trajectory for the aircraft that would be the most optimal."
Think about the complexity: thousands of aircraft flying through thousands of local weather conditions in an attempt to land at hundreds of airports. Factor in fuel consumption, connecting flight requirements, and dozens of other variables it's easy to see how can Big Data can improve your trip time in the skies.
Rick Rashid, chief research officer for Microsoft, also spoke about how to manage and process vast stores of data. Everything we think of as technology, he said, is really just one form or another of processing data. The cloud, for all of its metaphorical elegance, is simply a brute force way of sharing data across space, breaking down the silos that isolate one trove of information from another.
Rashid gave an example from the medical field, discussing Microsoft's efforts to prevent patients from being readmitted to hospital within 30 days of discharge. A typical system would treat each visit as a separate incident. But Big Data can see patterns across millions of hospital visits, and tease out the commonalities between cases. The results allow doctors to treat the patient's immediate future as well as his or her current illness, saving millions of dollars and countless hours of human suffering.
Data is the building block of everything we do these days, touching everything from video games to the maintenance of our own health. But all too often the important signals get lost inside the torrents of noise. We've reached the point in human development when simply knowing everything isn't enough; now we must learn how to understand what we know.