Stephen Baker

The Numerati
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Big Data and math

February 12, 2012Hop Skip Go

Steve Lohr has a good round-up of Big Data trends in the Times. It has very similar themes to The Numerati and to Ian Ayres' SuperCrunchers.

In fact, reading the story reminded of my BusinessWeek story, Math Will Rock Your World, which led to The Numerati. It argues the same points, but instead of focusing on the subject of the investigation--data--it looks at the tools employed, mathematics and computers (without, you might note, shedding any light on how the mathematicians and computer scientists carry out this work.)

As I've mentioned before, Steve Adler, the editor in chief, started the process by telling me to write a cover story on math. So I started interviewing mathematicians. I was learning all sorts of interesting things about encryption and operations research, but I didn't really see the BusinessWeek cover story until I delved into the world of data. In the end, I wrote a story about Big Data--but kept math in the headline.

A few paragraphs from that story:

The world is moving into a new age of numbers. Partnerships between mathematicians and computer scientists are bulling into whole new domains of business and imposing the efficiencies of math. This has happened before. In past decades, the marriage of higher math and computer modeling transformed science and engineering. Quants turned finance upside down a generation ago. And data miners plucked useful nuggets from vast consumer and business databases. But just look at where the mathematicians are now. They're helping to map out advertising campaigns, they're changing the nature of research in newsrooms and in biology labs, and they're enabling marketers to forge new one-on-one relationships with customers. As this occurs, more of the economy falls into the realm of numbers. Says James R. Schatz, chief of the mathematics research group at the National Security Agency: "There has never been a better time to be a mathematician."

From fledglings like Inform to tech powerhouses such as IBM (IBM ), companies are hitching mathematics to business in ways that would have seemed fanciful even a few years ago. In the past decade, a sizable chunk of humanity has moved its work, play, chat, and shopping online. We feed networks gobs of digital data that once would have languished on scraps of paper -- or vanished as forgotten conversations. These slices of our lives now sit in databases, many of them in the public domain. From a business point of view, they're just begging to be analyzed. But even with the most powerful computers and abundant, cheap storage, companies can't sort out their swelling oceans of data, much less build businesses on them, without enlisting skilled mathematicians and computer scientists.

The rise of mathematics is heating up the job market for luminary quants, especially at the Internet powerhouses where new math grads land with six-figure salaries and rich stock deals. Tom Leighton, an entrepreneur and applied math professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says: "All of my students have standing offers at Yahoo!  and Google." Top mathematicians are becoming a new global elite. It's a force of barely 5,000, by some guesstimates, but every bit as powerful as the armies of Harvard University MBAs who shook up corner suites a generation ago.


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