Person of Interest: Big Data Analytics as Entertainment

Saturday, November 2, 2013 0 No tags Permalink

OK, something a little different today, and I am going to shed the royal we, for a first person I in this blog post.

Firstly, let me explain that I, the writer of this blog, am a complete Sci-Fi nut. TV, Books, Movies, Games, if it’s Sci-Fi I’ll probably be into it. Because of this, I seldom miss a new Sci-Fi TV show launch. However, last week, whilst chatting with a buddy of mine, I was asked if I had been watching the new season of Person of Interest? I had no idea what he was speaking about. He told me I just had to watch it, not pure Sci-Fi, but close enough he told me, and he was convinced I would enjoy the Big Data hook. Intrigued, I set about finding the original series of Person of Interest that aired some two years ago, the show is now in its third season. I was hooked from the opening credits of the first episode, which states that:

Person of Interest Big Data

“You are being watched. The government has a secret system: a machine that spies on you every hour of every day. I know, because I built it. I designed the machine to detect acts of terror, but it sees everything. Violent crimes involving ordinary people; people like you. Crimes the government considered ‘irrelevant’. They wouldn’t act, so I decided I would.”

The back story is pretty simple. Major tech firm, in financial difficulty, approaches the US Government in the shadow of the 9/11 tragedy. The company offers to build an intelligent computer system, plugged into every traffic/police camera in the country, reading every email, listening to every telephone call, tracking every single person, and predicting those that are potential threats to national security. This sets the Picture for Person of Interest. I’m not going to go into any more detail about the show now, but I definitely recommend it. What I want to talk about, is whether we have the technology to build such a machine right now?

Big Data analytics has come a long way in a very short time. Advances in pattern recognition, sentiment analysis, natural language processing and a whole host of other data sciences has transformed Big Data in to the current hot topic for many enterprises.

Data storage and retrieval technology has similarly improved, especially in the fields of distributed file systems, and NoSQL databases solutions (such as Mongo DB). Add to this the kind of mass distributed, nodal approach to parallel processing that products such as Hadoop make possible, and we no longer need to situate a data warehouse in a single physical location.

So let’s for a moment hypothesize that we can connect every camera, every cell phone, all internet access etc. into a single distributed system, and start capturing reams of Big Data. Could we mine this Big Data repository to uncover potential terrorists, violent criminals and other nefarious persons automatically?

It is my belief that we couldn’t. The single biggest problem faced by companies adopting Big Data is that it can be very hard to define the questions that can be answered by mining Big Data repositories. If we can’t simply ask our IT infrastructure to tell us why our customers churn, then how can we expect it to solve the much more difficult question, find me a terrorist?

This is where the TV show Person of Interest moves away from reality. The machine that makes these predictions, does so intelligently, and this is where the Sci-Fi comes in, as we all know that Artificial Intelligence is still predominantly a pipe dream. The intelligent side of the process needs human involvement, to ask the questions, and evaluate the answers produced by Big Data analytics. This is why companies like SandSIV AG are so useful for corporations looking to dive into the Big Data revolution. They can provide expert knowledge transfer, to bring internal IT departments up to speed quickly, and begin producing tangible results.

So for now, I think we are all safe, Big Brother if he is watching, is almost certainly not able to use Big Data in the predictive way that the TV show Person of Interest does.


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