Big data set to transform the world

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The era of big data is here and it has the possibility to change the world unlike anything that’s happened since the Industrial Revolution.

That was the message from Andrew McAfee, associate director of the Center for Digital Business at the MIT Sloan School of Management, in his keynote address Thursday before a packed house at the VMware Government Innovation Summit held at the Washington Convention Center in Washington, D.C.

“Data is the lifeblood of science,” said McAfee, co-author of “The Second Machine Age.” “It’s how you get smarter, and we’re creating data at unfathomable pace that gives us the power to change how business, government and society operate.”

McAfee pointed to the metric system, which the expansion of data is about to outgrow as it is simply running out of prefixes to explain such large numbers. For example, the terabyte was in place for 28 years. It was surpassed then by the petabyte, then a few months later the exabyte and finally the zettabyte, which is currently in play. Soon, organizations will turn to the yottabyte, which is presently the largest number in the metric system with a prefix.

To put that in perspective, storing a yottabyte on terabyte-size hard drives would require 1 million city-block-size data centers, as big as the states of Delaware and Rhode Island.

All of that growth — from the exabyte to the yottabyte — has occurred over several months.

And what that means, McAfee said, is that things are going to change and they’re going to change fast in a transformation he admits “could get weird.”

“What we’re going to see if this data harnessed in ways that will alter the way the world works,” McAfee said. “We’ll see a culture that will face challenges and a disruption that will at times be difficult to adopt. The key for us is reacting to those changes, which will becoming the defining issue for business for the rest of our lives.”

McAfee said we’re just beginning to see the fruits of this change with things like Google’s driverless cars, predictive analytics in things like political elections and IBM’s creation of Watson, the computer that competed on Jeopardy.

“These are just the warm-up acts,” McAfee said. “Digital technologies will continue to astonish us, creating an abundance of new opportunities.”

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