big data | April 01, 2013

Are Computers Making Us Dumber? Big Data Speaker Eric Berlow

Are computer generated algorithms actually making us dumber, not smarter? The answer is yes, according to big data speaker Eric Berlow. If we rely solely on computers to solve our problems, that is. The founder of Vibrant Data Labs recently spoke at the GigaOM Structure: Data 2013 conference, where he explained that relying on computers to solve all of our problems doesn't give us the whole picture. We need to combine those algorithms and data with human input to get a concrete understanding of the world around us.

"There’s lots of content in [a] newspaper," Berlow explains in the talk, "[and] after viewing the most stories for a few weeks, I asked myself, where did all the news go?" He asked the audience to remember what the big news stories were during the Presidential debates. He argues that if you were to focus on the topics from that time period solely based on news algorithms, you’d be reading nothing but stories about Big Bird and 'binders full of women'. With the increased use of big data, we have become both consumers and producers of content. At, an offshoot of Vibrant Data Labs co-founded by Berlow, they are trying to inject the human element into data collection to determine which issues are actually the most important. Through research already conducted through the project, Berlow and his team discovered that gathering human input on data challenges before bringing in computers was extremely helpful in solving the problem. They discovered that the main problems emerging are digital access, digital trust, data literacy, platform openness.

Once these problems have become better defined, he explains, you can then determine which algorithm to apply to each problem specifically. Also, it allows you to focus your attention on the most important problems rather than every single one the pops up. A TED Fellow and complexity scientist, Berlow finds common threads weaving throughout complex structures and simplifies what those connections mean. As he explains in his speeches—and in this GigaOM conference speech, in particular—identifying the most influential agents of a system or problem allows you to isolate problem areas and come up with creative solutions. While big data can help us solve some of the world's most pressing problems, it's important to remember that humans are still at the center of data—and the two elements need to work hand-in-hand to get the best results.