MIT Media Lab’s Sandy Pentland on the Future of Our Big-Data Society
Of all the articles I’ve read about “big data” recently, one stands out as particularly enlightening. It’s by Alex (Sandy) Pentland, a distinguished computer scientist and entrepreneurial professor at the MIT Media Lab, and it appears in John Brockman’s Edge.org.
Pentland argues that big data—in this case, analyzing details of social interactions and behaviors on a wide scale—will reinvent what it means to have a human society. He compares the impending transformation to the historical development of writing, education, and the Internet.
Of course, anyone can hype the societal impact of big data, and many have. But Pentland has thought through some of the thornier issues—privacy, data ownership, information flow, even how big data conflicts with the scientific method—and he emerges with a clear picture of the big-data landscape, complete with some key specifics.
You should read the piece, but here are a few of my takeaways:
1. Big data is about connections between people, not just systems, and it’s about their behaviors, not their beliefs. “We are getting beyond complexity, data science and web science, because we are including people as a key part of these systems. That’s the promise of Big Data, to really understand the systems that make our technological society. As you begin to understand them, then you can build systems that are better,” Pentland writes. An example: companies and organizations that are “more fair, stable and efficient.”
2. Who controls the data will impact everything (including who wins among the tech giants). “The people who have the most valuable data are the banks, the telephone companies, the medical companies, and they’re very highly regulated industries. As a consequence they can’t really leverage that data the way they’d like to unless they get buy-in from both the consumer and the regulators,” he writes. By contrast, Internet giants like Google and Facebook are more used to an unregulated environment. “They’re slowly, slowly coming around to the idea that they’re going to have to compromise on” issues of data control, he says.
3. Policies and regulations are catching up to the new data reality. Pentland says, “I’ve been helping to run sessions at the World Economic Forum around sourcing personal data and ownership of the data, and that’s ended pretty successfully with what I call the New Deal on Data. The Chairman of the Federal Trade Commission, who’s been part of the group, put forward the U.S. ‘Consumer Data Bill of Rights,’ and in the EU, the Justice Commissioner declared a version of this New Deal to be a basic human right.”