'Big Data' Will Change How You Play, See the Doctor, Even Eat

We’re entering an age of personal big data, and its impact on our lives will surpass that of the Internet. Data will answer questions we could never before answer with certainty—everyday questions like whether that dress actually makes you look fat, or profound questions about precisely how long you will live.


Every 20 years or so, a powerful technology moves from the realm of backroom expertise and into the hands of the masses. In the late-1970s, computing made that transition—from mainframes in glass-enclosed rooms to personal computers on desks. In the late 1990s, the first web browsers made networks, which had been for science labs and the military, accessible to any of us, giving birth to the modern Internet.

Each transition touched off an explosion of innovation and reshaped work and leisure. In 1975, 50,000 PCs were in use worldwide. Twenty years later: 225 million. The number of Internet users in 1995 hit 16 million. Today it’s more than 3 billion. In much of the world, it’s hard to imagine life without constant access to both computing and networks.

The 2010s will be the coming-out party for data. Gathering, accessing and gleaning insights from vast and deep data has been a capability locked inside enterprises long enough. Cloud computing and mobile devices now make it possible to stand in a bathroom line at a baseball game while tapping into massive computing power and databases. On the other end, connected devices such as the Nest thermostat or Fitbit health monitor and apps on smartphones increasingly collect new kinds of information about everyday personal actions and habits, turning it into data about ourselves.

More than 80 percent of data today is unstructured: tangles of YouTube videos, news stories, academic papers, social network comments. Unstructured data has been almost impossible to search for, analyze and mix with other data. A new generation of computers—cognitive computing systems that learn from data—will read tweets or e-books or watch video, and comprehend its content. Somewhat like brains, these systems can link diverse bits of data to come up with real answers, not just search results.

Such systems can work in natural language. The progenitor is the IBM Watson computer that won on Jeopardy in 2011. Next-generation Watsons will work like a super-powered Google. (Google today is a data-searching wimp compared with what’s coming.)

Sports offers a glimpse into the data age. Last season the NBA installed in every arena technology that can “watch” a game and record, in 48 minutes of action, more than 4 million data points about every movement and shot. That alone could yield new insights for NBA coaches, such as which group of five players most efficiently passes the ball around….

Think again about life before personal computing and the Internet. Even if someone told you that you’d eventually carry a computer in your pocket that was always connected to global networks, you would’ve had a hard time imagining what that meant—imagining WhatsApp, Siri, Pandora, Uber, Evernote, Tinder.

As data about everything becomes ubiquitous and democratized, layered on top of computing and networks, it will touch off the most spectacular technology explosion yet. We can see the early stages now. “Big data” doesn’t even begin to describe the enormity of what’s coming next.”