Data is the currency of the 21st century

For the last 20 years I’ve helped clients design and build Enterprise IT applications and infrastructure to support their businesses. During this time, my focus was on ensuring that data and the business processes IT supports are always available, under any conditions, planned or unplanned.


Recently, my focus changed. Last month I joined the Chief Technology Office inside the Information Solutions Group. For those not familiar, the Infrastructure Solutions Group is responsible for Dell EMC’s Primary Storage and Data Protection Solutions. If you have heard of VMAX, VNX, XtremIO, Unity, Data Domain, NetWorker or Avamar, you are in good company.


I’ve shifted from data infrastructure to exploring the value one can derive from data. In my quest to find answers, I have buried my head in research on many topics: conventional business intelligence, data visualization, statistics, machine learning, probabilistic programming and artificial neural networks. Suffice to say it is a lot to take on in a few months (and my head still hurts). What I have come to learn is that data generated by machines, in the course of doing business and interacting with each other, contains value that is seemingly invisible to the human eye. That value needs to be explored and unlocked.


Since the beginning of time, the human race has collected data to build a plan and support decisions. Data would be collected from surveys, forms, experiments, tests, optical devices and analogue to digital converters. This data was used to understand the environment around us, to find meaning, and to support objective decision making. However, the amount and diverse nature of the data we could generate was limited by the instruments and methods available to describe the environment in terms computers could process.


What changed? Thanks to mobile phones and other portable devices, the world switched from analogue to digital communications.


According to IDC, the digital universe we now live in is doubling in size every two years, and by 2020 the data we create and copy annually will reach 44 trillion gigabytes.


This digital revolution is having another profound effect. It is fueling a resurgence in Artificial Intelligence.


With data streaming into Artificial Intelligent systems from sight (images), sound (microphone) and touch (screen) sensors, we can now understand what people are doing, feeling, saying and seeing. And by viewing the environment from multiple perspectives, Artificial Intelligence can build a greater and more accurate understanding of the environment. Consider a little experiment. Next time you speak to someone, close your eyes and try to imagine how they feel. Are they happy, are they sad, are they calm, are they angry? The human brain can associate emotion from speech, the same way we associate objects through the visual cortex. Now, perform the same experiment, but this time with your eyes open. Are you more confident in your answer now?


What may not be obvious is that one of the main ingredients driving the resurgence in Artificial Intelligence is the abundance of rich and diverse data. This form of Artificial Intelligence, better known as Deep Learning, requires access to large amounts of data and computational power to identify patterns and form opinions. Humans then take these opinions to support their motivations and actions. The motivation behind the learning can be anything. For example, a business may want to identify growth opportunities, optimize a system or process, or anticipate and prevent a bad situation.


Major organizations including IBM, Google, Facebook, Amazon, Baidu and Microsoft recognize the potential of Artificial Intelligence, and each are accumulating data at massive scale. Much of this data comes in the form of speech, images and text from digital sources such as social media platforms, mobile devices and IoT sensors. What was once seemingly invisible to a human being can now be observed from the data.


What does the future hold?


Data rich organizations and governments will be able to do a lot of good for society. They will be able to solve crimes, identify disease early, prevent the spread of disease, anticipate social unrest and reduce our dependency on fossil fuels. However, they will also be able to anticipate and take advantage of events before everyone else, such as economic conditions, domestic trends and worldwide movements.


If you are in the business of delivering products and services, consider the type of data you need and questions you could ask to obtain a complete understanding of your products and users.


If you are engaging with customers and partners, consider the type of data you need and questions you could ask to improve customer satisfaction, simplify interactions, increase efficiency and anticipate next steps.


To summarize, data is the currency of the 21st century brought on by the digital revolution. This is fueling an Artificial Intelligence arms race. Those that ask questions of the data and listen will thrive. Those that ignore the data will fall further behind. To remain relevant in this digital era we all need to produce, nurture and listen to the data.

~Peter Marelas @pmarelas

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