Already, thanks to big data, we have learned that toddlers learn language not from repetition—which we’ve thought for centuries—but by hearing words used in multiple contexts. We’ve also found that premature babies are at greatest risk when their heartbeats are stable (healthy baby hearts are more erratic). Researchers are making inroads into understanding the external influences on autism (carbon-dioxide levels, room temperature) and how urban crime can largely be isolated to just a few blocks, even individual buildings. These and other big-data breakthroughs can be seen Wednesday night in the PBS documentary “The Human Face of Big Data,” based on a 2012 book of the same name, to which I contributed an essay.
We can now identify impending bouts of depression, even suicidal tendencies, by looking at the changing lifestyle (social media usage, diminishing movement) of potential victims. And, using Google search data, epidemiologists can spot an emerging epidemic before doctors do.
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.