The future of statistics and data science

Paper by Sofia C. Olhede and Patrick J. Wolfe in Statistics & Probability Letters: “The Danish physicist Niels Bohr is said to have remarked: “Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future”. Predicting the future of statistics in the era of big data is not so very different from prediction about anything else. Ever since we started to collect data to predict cycles of the moon, seasons, and hence future agriculture yields, humankind has worked to infer information from indirect observations for the purpose of making predictions.

Even while acknowledging the momentous difficulty in making predictions about the future, a few topics stand out clearly as lying at the current and future intersection of statistics and data science. Not all of these topics are of a strictly technical nature, but all have technical repercussions for our field. How might these repercussions shape the still relatively young field of statistics? And what can sound statistical theory and methods bring to our understanding of the foundations of data science? In this article we discuss these issues and explore how new open questions motivated by data science may in turn necessitate new statistical theory and methods now and in the future.

Together, the ubiquity of sensing devices, the low cost of data storage, and the commoditization of computing have led to a volume and variety of modern data sets that would have been unthinkable even a decade ago. We see four important implications for statistics.

First, many modern data sets are related in some way to human behavior. Data might have been collected by interacting with human beings, or personal or private information traceable back to a given set of individuals might have been handled at some stage. Mathematical or theoretical statistics traditionally does not concern itself with the finer points of human behavior, and indeed many of us have only had limited training in the rules and regulations that pertain to data derived from human subjects. Yet inevitably in a data-rich world, our technical developments cannot be divorced from the types of data sets we can collect and analyze, and how we can handle and store them.

Second, the importance of data to our economies and civil societies means that the future of regulation will look not only to protect our privacy, and how we store information about ourselves, but also to include what we are allowed to do with that data. For example, as we collect high-dimensional vectors about many family units across time and space in a given region or country, privacy will be limited by that high-dimensional space, but our wish to control what we do with data will go beyond that….

Third, the growing complexity of algorithms is matched by an increasing variety and complexity of data. Data sets now come in a variety of forms that can be highly unstructured, including images, text, sound, and various other new forms. These different types of observations have to be understood together, resulting in multimodal data, in which a single phenomenon or event is observed through different types of measurement devices. Rather than having one phenomenon corresponding to single scalar values, a much more complex object is typically recorded. This could be a three-dimensional shape, for example in medical imaging, or multiple types of recordings such as functional magnetic resonance imaging and simultaneous electroencephalography in neuroscience. Data science therefore challenges us to describe these more complex structures, modeling them in terms of their intrinsic patterns.

Finally, the types of data sets we now face are far from satisfying the classical statistical assumptions of identically distributed and independent observations. Observations are often “found” or repurposed from other sampling mechanisms, rather than necessarily resulting from designed experiments….

 Our field will either meet these challenges and become increasingly ubiquitous, or risk rapidly becoming irrelevant to the future of data science and artificial intelligence….(More)”.