We live in the era of insight

 In Blog

The other day, I read an article by Michael Malone in The Wall Street Journal. Two of his quotes stood out:

“One of the most extraordinary features of big data is that it signals the end of the reign of statistics. For 400 years, we’ve been forced to sample complex systems and extrapolate. Now, with big data, it is possible to measure everything, from the movement of billions of stars to every beat of the human heart,” and

“Perhaps nowhere will this change be greater than with our own bodies. With new generations of external and internal monitoring devices continuously gathering unimaginable quantities of health and medical data on billions of people, we will soon learn more about the human body in a year than we once did in a century.”

Both points are dead on.

We live in the era of big data and even bigger analytics. We live in the era of insight.

Every day, our lives are impacted on a tangible level by technology and the underlying software that makes technology relevant. Your phone is relevant because it makes your life better; it solves a myriad of daily hassles. It knows where you are, it helps you get places, it connects you to friends and family, it entertains you.

In order to pull off all of those feats, which seem effortless and instant every time we reach for our phones, there is a vast array of software and complex analytics at work.

The iPhone 6s, for example, processes about 10 billion floating operations per second (FLOPS). The fastest massive supercomputer in the 1980’s, a Cray-2, processed less than 2 billion FLOPS. Think about that. A tiny phone in the year 2016 is 5 times more powerful than the fastest super computer from the ’80s.

We talk a lot about Moore’s Law, the paradigm that explains our ability to pack more and more transistors into small spaces and therefore double computational power every few years. But it’s not just processing power that is evolving with time. It’s also the algorithms that harness their capabilities.

We are feeling the impact of more than 50 years of broad software development. Microsoft is 41 years old having been founded in 1975. Software tools and languages have evolved as more and more code has entered the technology ecosystem. Our processing power has accelerated, and we’ve unlocked almost unimaginable capabilities as it relates to the speed and ease at which engineers code.

Who would have thought that from 0s and 1s we could build so much amazing technology: television, mobile phones, driverless cars, shuttles that take people to the moon.

We have stretched the very boundaries of our imagination and yet the greatest test of our elasticity is yet to come.

We sit on the dawn of a new era. An era in which computational power and engineering tool sets allow for machines to learn on their own, ushering in the first tangible applications of artificial intelligence. And as these technologies evolve in the next few years, one of the most interesting applications will inevitably be in healthcare, where we now have large unmined databases of molecular data.

In 2003, we sequenced the first human genome, unlocking the recipe book for all life. Finally, we could assemble all the As, Cs, Gs and Ts that determine how our cells function, and ultimately how we function. But the cost of generating this data was prohibitive at well over $100 million per genome.

Today, just 13 years later, that same genome can be sequenced for under $5,000; that’s a twenty-thousand-fold decrease in cost in just over a decade. And soon, it will cost a few hundred dollars.

The significance of being able to build a personalized molecular map of every human, healthy and sick, is almost incomprehensible. We will for the first time be able to see, at an atomic level, what is happening to each individual who contracts a disease, or fights one off.

Not only will this extend our knowledge of potential actionable targets by a thousand-fold, but it will allow us to truly personalize the drugs and therapies for each patient. We can tailor medications. We can tailor dose. We can tailor regimen and sequence.

And when we can personalize therapies for patients, we can keep them alive longer. Out of all our advances in gathering and analyzing data over the past few decades, perhaps this is the greatest insight we as a civilization can garner.

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