Curiosity Luminary Rick Smolan: “I have become a convert.”

I’m really looking forward to my first Curiosity Retreat later this month, and the chance to brainstorm the future with some of the smartest people in the world.

I’m honored to be sharing a fascinating journey I’ve been on for the past 18 months, exploring a strange new land, widely talked about in labs and boardrooms from Palo Alto to Bangalore, as the world of Big Data. As with all the best journeys, when I began there were no maps to guide me, just helpful fellow travelers also trying to navigate a wild and uncharted territory.

Along the way, I asked many experts to help me understand what Big Data really means. Some define Big Data as more than what can be stored on a personal computer. Others say it isn’t just the quantity of information, but the tools that show the patterns within it. Still others choose to be metaphorical: Big Data, they told me, is the process of helping the planet grow a nervous system, one in which we are all evolving into human sensors.

The overarching message I came away with is that we are witnessing something the human race has never experienced before. The real-time visualization of data streaming in from satellites, and from billions of sensors, RFID tags, and GPS-enabled cameras and smartphones, is enabling humanity, in real time, to sense, measure, understand, and affect aspects of our existence in ways our ancestors could never have imagined in their wildest dreams.

In the lecture I’ve been invited to share at the Curiosity Retreat, I’m going to share a wide array of examples of how Big Data, still in its infancy, is sweeping, almost invisibly, through business, academia, government, health care, and everyday life. It’s already enabling us, both as individuals and as a society, to provide a healthier life for our children; to provide our seniors with independence while keeping them safe; to conserve precious resources like water and energy; to peer into our own individual genetic makeup; to create new forms of life. And soon, many predict, to reengineer our own species. And yet, we’ve barely scratched the surface.…

To be honest, at the beginning of this project I was skeptical of the many claims I heard that Big Data might one day turn out to be more transformative than the Internet. Having now traversed vast regions of this new land, I have become a convert. I am now convinced that Big Data may well turn out to be the most powerful tool set the human race will have to address the widespread challenges facing our species and our planet.

Like all new tools, Big Data carries the potential for unintended consequences. But if we are careful and wise, in the not too distant future this new set of technologies may have an impact on humanity as great as those of language and art.

 

Rick Smolan
Founder
Against All Odds Productions

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The Search for Intelligent Life and a Champagne toast

It is a question as enduring as time itself: “Are we alone in the Universe?” Astronomer Dr. Jill Tarter, who is the former Director of the SETI Institute (the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) has been asking that critical question for most of her professional life. And, of course as we know – it remains unknown, and perhaps unknowable – for now. I interviewed Dr. Tarter about the potential for such an historic discovery at our Curiosity Studio in Gateway, Colorado:

“I think there is a possibility for life, and some of it being intelligent to exist beyond the earth…We are made out of the elements that were fused up inside massive stars that blew up billions of years ago…Although we can’t tell you exactly how the chemistry turned into biology, it clearly did on this planet a long time ago.”

An intriguing and unanswered key question is what should Planet Earth do if intelligent life is found elsewhere in the Cosmos? Should humans actively reach out? Or should we stay silent? Are there inherent dangers and risks if Earth does make contact with alien life? Are we prepared as a planet? Are the right protocols in place? Who would actually speak for Planet Earth, and what would we say? Well, Dr. Tarter thinks it is worth the risk:

“Well, I think it would change everything and change everything quite quickly. So the very first thing that we’re going to do is drink champagne that’s been sitting in the refrigerator for all these decades. And then we’ll get busy with the follow up protocol. This is pretty big stuff.”

I asked Dr. Tarter what are the tools and technology scientists are using to explore the universe for intelligent life? It is called a radio telescope and Dr. Tarter explains how it works:

“We can take a lot of energy and compress it all into just one channel on a radio dial where nature is more profligate. Nature spreads the energy she emits over many, many frequencies. For efficiency, we compress it into one and that doesn’t look like Mother Nature. So that’s our sandbox, kinds of signals that don’t appear to be the sorts of things that nature can create.”

So for now, fifty years or so into the search, Dr. Tarter and the scientists at SETI continue their unique exploration of the Cosmos, hoping that one day, or night, Planet Earth might hear that ping…and then…!

 

Richard Sergay
Chief Curator
CuriosityStream

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