Growth of computing power enables mankind to analyze everything from the stars to our chromosomes, but big data can’t replace critical thinking or totally account for people who lie.
NPR’s TED Radio Hour has probed the big data revolution and how it may reshape our lives, literally. Calling big data the “steam engine of our time,” number-crunching optimists say big data can generate answers to big questions such as whether the universe is expanding, how to combat climate change and ways to predict and alter life itself. One big data enthusiast believes it isn’t out of the question to defeat death by chronicling the gazillions of molecules of a human being and reconstructing them when a life as we know it “ends.”
Big data serves more pedestrian purposes, too, such as identifying the latest fashion trends or the growth of the federal budget deficit.
But the question remains whether all that data always produces the best answers or the correct ones. In a totally rational world, people would save for their eventual retirement as soon as possible. In reality, many people don’t start thinking about retirement savings until they are on retirement’s doorstep. That has led to the burgeoning field of behavioral economics, which goes beyond the numbers to actual behavior.
Critical thinking in problem-solving can uncover solutions obscured or omitted from big data. An example from the TED Radio Show is a family with a physically challenged child who had under-developed spoken language skills resulting from hearing loss. While therapists, educators and the parents puzzled over how to teach the child, he was discovered one day Googling questions and absorbing the answers. He was in effect teaching himself, showing that human capacity and creativity are key problem-solving factors.
Ethics is just one of the nuances critical thinking can add to big data. Data may show we could use a series of subterranean nuclear explosions to create a new canal cost-effectively. However, the risks associated with such a plan may be judged too great to consider it. We may have the tools, thanks to big data, to tweak genes to resist congenital diseases. The same tools could be used to select gender and physical characteristics – and deselect other characteristics. Only humans can contemplate the implications of such choices.
Relying too much on what humans say can be a problem. There is too much proof that people fib. One study found that 1.6 million American men said they engaged in heterosexual sex using a condom, but only 1.1 million American women said they engaged in heterosexual sex using a condom. The US condom industry said it only sold 600 million condoms for the same year. The data doesn’t square. It is possible males are more likely to overstate their sexual activity and females may understate their sexual activity. It’s very unlikely the condom industry would understate their annual sales.
Big data is here to stay. Critical thinking never goes out of style. Lying is a fact of life. The trick is to blend all three to get the most accurate, useful picture possible on which to base serious decisions.
Some futurists envision humans and computers working cooperatively in a more organic form than turning on a laptop or robot. For most of us, we will have secondary access to big data, which will increase the need to apply critical thinking skills and good, old-fashioned common sense to determine what the data says and means.
Big data has opened up vistas for human knowledge and verification. But as big data has shown, one of the single biggest pieces of big data on earth are human beings. Each of us have complex systems, giving us the ability to think and to feel. Even when computers and robots achieve human-level complexity and intelligence, they still may not be able to outthink us.