Massive, inconceivable numbers are commonplace in conversations about computers. The exabyte, a one followed by 18 zeroes worth of bits; the petaflop, one quadrillion calculations performed in a single second. Beneath the surface of our lives churns an ocean of information, from whose depths answers and optimisations ascend like munificent kraken.
This is the much-hyped realm of “big data”: unprecedented quantities of information generated at unprecedented speed, in unprecedented variety.
From particle physics to predictive search and aggregated social media sentiments, we reap its benefits across a broadening gamut of fields. We agonise about over-sharing while the numbers themselves tick upwards. Mostly, though, we fail to address a handful of questions more fundamental even than privacy. What are machines good at; what are they less good at; and when are their answers worse than useless?