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

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.”

Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and Editor of Xconomy Boston. E-mail him at gthuang [at] Follow @gthuang

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  • An important point not really amplified here is that who tries to control the data will lose; information in silos is nearly useless, and organizations with hard information boundaries will be left behind.

    Here are the last two paragraphs:
    “Also there is inherent in a society built on data sharing a certain level of transparency and choice for individuals that I believe will tend to mitigate against central control. It tends to dissolve the power of the state and big organizations because you can build things that are far more efficient and robust if they’re distributed and without the hard information boundaries that you see today.

    That means that the service-oriented government, as it were, or the service-oriented organization will tend to have better offerings for a lower price, as opposed to the ones that try to own the customer or control the citizen. As a consequence I expect to see that organizations with hard information boundaries will tend to dissolve, because there will be competition from things that are better that don’t have the hard boundaries and don’t try to own your data.”