MIT conference looks at the good, the bad and the ugly on big data

MIT conference speakers at EmTech 2013 discussed the power of big data. We captured the speaker comments and Twitter feedback that made waves.

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MIT's EmTech 2013 conference, held at the MIT Media Lab in Cambridge, Mass. on Oct. 9-11, covered a wide range of emerging technology topics while introducing the minds behind some of these revolutionary advances -- and the promises and perils of big data took center stage.

EmTech kicked off with a discussion on how big data allows researchers to better understand and simulate human behavior. As attendees -- both in-person and online -- listened and learned, Twitter feeds were simultaneously buzzing. We've gathered some of those tweets, providing a roundup that highlights the conference's big data ideas and arguments so you can start a big data discussion of your own.

Jason Pontin, EmTech moderator and MIT Technology Review editor, opened the conference by noting that, while we are creating more advanced and refined technology, it doesn't mean we are moving forward in the integration of technology with human cooperation, interaction and application. His words applied directly to big data: Before complete integration, we must confront concerns and controversies.

Deb Roy caused a stir on Twitter by talking about, well, Twitter! An MIT professor and Twitter's chief media scientist, Roy first used graphics and visuals to explain how he was using big data both at home and at work. After installing cameras throughout his home, he tracked his 2-year-old son's language development for two years to identify the "how's" and "why's" in his son's language growth.

Applying the concept on a significantly larger scale for Twitter's purposes, Roy is tracking impressions and patterns in real time to better identify advertising opportunities in television:

Mitchell Higashi, chief economist at GE Healthcare, is using big data to create maps, models and games to simulate human behavior for better healthcare access and information around the world. By approaching healthcare policy with "people + data + machines" in mind, Higashi is modeling human behavior to project future consequences of actions taken in India. Noting that big data is "fast, fluid and prevalent," he is aiming to revise healthcare policy, which he called "slow, complex and ambiguous." Twitter caught on to Higashi's approach of problem solving with big data:

Kate Crawford, a principal researcher at Microsoft Research, offered a different look at big data, and it wasn't exactly pretty. Presenting on "the bad and the ugly" side of big data, Crawford argued that, in the wrong hands, big data is allowing a thoroughly detailed look into individuals' lives, and without proper policy and care, we could dive deeper into an age she deemed "the end of anonymity."

Ari Gesher, a senior software engineer at Palo Alto. Calif.-based Palantir Technologies, is using big data to create "human computer symbiosis." Through research and direct involvement in disaster recovery efforts -- specifically the devastation caused by Hurricane Sandy -- Gesher and his team are using big data to better allocate recovery efforts. He urged better policy and fraud detection for big data practices as well, noting that big data used for damaging purposes hinders symbiotic efforts:

To follow the EmTech MIT topics on your own, search "#EmTechMIT" on Twitter.

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