Sep 21, 2016

Are We Future Ready-III?

Pallavi Mody

This blog is the third in the series based on the book The Industries of the Future by Alec Ross. This blog shares thoughts on Big Data.

If “land was the raw material of the agricultural age, iron was the raw material of the industrial age, data is the raw material of the information age. The economic power which shifted from landowners to factory owners would shift now to those who own or handle data.”

— Alec Ross

The Internet has become an ocean of jumbled, chaotic information. Big Data and analytics shows a way to connect this information and draw actionable business intelligence from it.

Big Data is largely known as a tool for targeted advertising, to which all of us have a first-hand experience. When I typed in Google Goa, someone up there (Big Data) knew that there is a potential tourist for Goa. Almost immediately, I was bombarded with information for flights, hotels, restaurants, taxi services and places of interest. The entire paraphernalia of Goa tourism was at my fingertips in seconds. I was happy that I could plan my trip with all possible information. There were reviews of the travelers that helped me decide what to do, where to stay, which room to choose, which restaurant to visit and what to eat! From the jungle of information on travel all over the world, the relevant information for Goa was sifted and made available to me with colourful images, movies and music. Honestly, I have started enjoying my travel twice; once virtually, while planning and then when really in Goa. Isn’t this creating a win-win for both — the Goa tourism industry and me?

But this is not all. Big data is transitioning from a tool primarily for targeted advertising to an instrument with profound applications for diverse corporate sectors. Big Data or analytics is intimate and expansive, personalised and comprehensive – often compared to the microscope and the telescope. This leads to a large number of solutions and applications.

Consider one application in the form of Universal Machine Translation. It would make language barriers a thing of the past; a device in the ear would make it possible to have real time translation. This would enable conversations with people of different languages. Global business implications of this innovation could be immense and inclusive as this would help globalisation even for small businesses and individuals.

Consider another application in the form of Precision Agriculture. The Green Revolution, that intensified the use of fertilizers and pesticides, helped to improve farm productivity and food supply. Farm productivity levels are stagnating due to diminishing returns. The concern over environment due to excessive use of fertilizers and pesticides also has become real. Precision Agriculture provides an alternative in the form of determining the right quantity and quality of input requirement on the basis of sensors from soil.

Instead of blanketing a field with a fixed amount of fertilizer, pesticide and herbicide as is the case now, new data will determine just the right amount of water and fertilizer to use. Precision Agriculture holds the promise of growing more food while polluting less, all with the help of Big Data. Monsanto, DuPont and John Deere are already making an early investment to have the first mover advantage.

What is making me a little nervous and uncomfortable is the feeling that somebody out there is constantly watching me. Let me give an example. When I have written somewhere in the mail about an attachment and if I forget to attach a file, the system pops up a simple message: You forgot to attach the file. When this happened for the first time, I was caught unaware and felt that someone was reading my mail. Now I like it as it takes care of my omission.

But the feeling that someone is tracking your Google searches, Linked-in posts, Facebook posts and WhatsApp posts remains. Is it because we are used to the privacy and we are now moving on to a more open and transparent world? As a child, when I visited my grandma’s village, I was amused as everyone knew everything about everyone. We in cities lived a much more guarded private life. Are we moving to a transparent global village with Big Data where our lives and thoughts are open? With Data permanence, are we ready to accept that everyone is going to know if not remember everything about us?

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