Skip to main content

Big Data - Timandra Harkness *****

I am very wary of books written by people who claim to be taking the wide-eyed outsider's viewpoint, claiming no knowledge of the topic and talking to lots of people in the know - despite the success of Bill Bryson's science book. However, as soon as I came up against Timandra Harkness pointing out that 'data' makes much more sense as a (singular) collective noun for data points, so we should say 'What is data?' rather 'What are data' (something I've been arguing for years), I knew that I was going to enjoy this book.

And despite the rather hard work attempts to be funny in footnotes (especially over number of cups of tea drunk while writing the book), mostly Harkness settles down into telling the story well with a clear amount of knowledge behind her writing (she is, after all, taking a maths degree). 

The story she tells is both fascinating and important. It takes in the historical introduction of statistics, Babbage (where she almost manages to talk about Ada King (aka Lovelace) without over-hyping Ada's contribution), the development of computing and most significantly the way dealing with large amounts of data has transformed the way many scientists do their work. Some of the approaches are mind-boggling - for instance the idea of monitoring mosquitos from airships (poor index, by the way - neither mosquitos or airships are in it), detecting the diseases they are spreading and where (and stopping some as they go).

Things start to feel a little more uncomfortable when Harkness takes us onto just how much can be found out about us from our smartphones. While I don't understand her distaste for a husband and wife who can find each other's location with their smartphone - all her reasons why this is bad seem the kind of thing that shouldn't be an issue (and you can always turn your phone off if you really want to be secretive), the systems being trialled that could, for instance, pick up conversations on the street, locate phones and track numberplates really do stray into big brother  territory, as do the potential misuses of medical data. Having said that, in the section on misuses, she only interviews activists/people who are suspicious, and has no one giving the positive sides. But it's worth noting when there is so much in the news about the balance between personal secrecy and the attempt to keep on top of terrorists and the like.

Overall, a great mix of plenty of information and views on the potential benefits and dangers of big data. Just occasionally it seems like Harkness is taking the party line - for instance taking the benefits of smart meters for customers for granted, even though they are really far more about making complex tariffs easier to impose for the electricity companies - but overall it's a truly fascinating tour of the data that lies beneath so many of the things we do everyday, from the adverts that pop up on our phones and computers to the customer loyalty cards of supermarkets.

A brilliant guide to our brave new world.


Hardback 

Kindle 
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Ancestral Night (SF) - Elizabeth Bear *****

Only a couple of weeks ago, reviewing a 1960s SF book, I bemoaned the fact that science fiction novels of ideas are less common now. Although it is correctly labelled a space opera, Ancestral Night delivers ideas with aplomb.

Let's deal with the space opera aspect first. Elizabeth Bear provides some excellent adventure scenes in space, and we've the usual mix of huge spaceships and interesting aliens. Main character Haimey Dz is an engineer on a ship that salvages wrecks - but, as we gradually discover - she also has a forgotten past. A major feature of the storyline (one that seems to link to the medieval idea of the lost wisdom of the past) is ancient technology from a long-dead race with capabilities, notably manipulating spacetime mentally (Bear has yet to point out that the travel technologies used here could manipulate time as well as space), which fit well with Arthur C. Clarke's magic definition.

I particularly liked the (surely intentional) nods to the much-misse…

The Creativity Code - Marcus du Sautoy *****

At first glance this might just be another 'What AI is good at and not so good at' title. And in a way, it is. But, wow, what a brilliant book! Marcus du Sautoy takes us on a tour of what artificial intelligence has achieved (and possibly can in the future achieve) in a range of fields from his own of mathematics, through game playing, music, art and more.

After a little discussion of what creativity is, we start off with the now very familiar story of DeepMind's AlphaGo and its astonishing ability to take on the hugely challenging game of Go. Even though I've read about this many times before, du Sautoy, as a Go player and mathematician, gives a real feel for why this was such a triumph - and so shocking. Not surprisingly he is also wonderful on what mathematicians actually do, how computers have helped them to date and how they have the potential to do far more in the future. After all, mathematics is by far the closest science to game playing, as it has strict rule…

The Demon in the Machine - Paul Davies *****

Physicists have a habit of dabbling in biology and, perhaps surprisingly, biologists tend to be quite tolerant of it. (I find it hard to believe the reverse would be true if biologists tried to do physics.) Perhaps one reason for that tolerance is Schrödinger’s lecture series and book What is Life?, which had a huge impact on molecular biology and with a reference to which, not surprisingly, Paul Davies begins his fascinating book. 

At the heart of the The Demon in the Machine (we'll come back to that demon in a moment) is the relationship between life and information. In essence, Davies points out that if we try to reduce life to its simple physical components it is like trying to work with a computer that has no software. The equivalent of software here is information, not just in the best publicised aspect of the information stored in the DNA, but on a far broader scale, operating in networks across the organism.
This information and its processing gives life its emergent compl…