A World of Data

Information. There is probably nothing so important to our lives, to our culture, to our world. Information, and the ability to communicate it, has been at the foundation of humanity’s rise since before we used fire or stone tools. It has allowed us to grow from nomadic clans to villages to city-states to nations to become a world-spanning society.

As our society and technologies have grown, so too has our world of information. Its depth, breadth and sheer volume have expanded exponentially. This has occurred for millennia, probably throughout our entire history. Yet now, as we find ourselves in the midst of the Digital Age, we discover we’ve reached a point when the volume of data we generate threatens our very ability to utilize it.

Data grows exponentially. According to market research and analysis firm IDC, the world’s digital output is doubling every one and a half years. In 2010, they expect the world to create and replicate a record 1.2 zettabytes of data. That’s over a trillion billion bytes, or a stack of DVDs reaching to the Moon and back. By 2020, IDC expects this number to grow to 35 zettabytes, or enough DVDs to reach halfway to Mars. But there are reasons to believe this estimate may fall woefully short.

How we address the issues surrounding the information explosion and the overload that accompanies it will directly impact how we develop our society and technologies in the future. My new article “Treading in the Sea of Data” is the cover story for the latest issue of The Futurist (July/August 2011) and it explores what this “data deluge” could mean for our world. The challenges created by Big Data are significant not only from a technological perspective, but from personal and societal ones as well. However, there are a number of approaches we can take in dealing with what will only continue to be a growing condition of life in this time of accelerating progress. I welcome your comments.

(This article draws from my more in-depth paper in the World Future Society’s 2011 conference volume, Moving from Vision to Action, which may be preordered from www.wfs.org.)

Data mining for treasure

When I talk about the intelligent future, I’m referring to far more than just artificial intelligence and intelligence amplification. The application of existing knowledge and tools in new and innovative ways will play just as much a role. One excellent example can be found in a paper published yesterday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. In “MiDReG: A method of mining developmentally regulated genes using Boolean implications”, Stanford University computer scientist,
Debashis Sahoo describes a computational method for bioinformatic data mining that may have a tremendous impact in biotech and the health sciences.

The method uses Boolean logic to identify genes having specific relationships and expressions in fractions of a second. Such identification can take years and cost hundreds of thousands of dollars using existing laboratory techniques. Still another benefit of this computational approach is that it can be used to mine existing databases.

This is a perfect example of how the convergence of informational technologies leads to accelerating progress. I would expect Sahoo’s method to radically increase our understanding of many genetic processes. I think this and other computational methods are likely to yield significant discoveries in cancer and aging research during the coming decade.