Big Data cannot replace human judgment

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In 2020, the world almost certainly will look vastly different than it does now, but it's a safe bet that what we call Big Data today will be far bigger than we can even imagine. Networks of sensors, cameras and mobile devices across the globe are excavating information at a pace that's hard to conceive. Some people believe that this massive data round-up will have a very positive impact, while others believe it will create more harm than good.

The application of Big Data and its ultimate impact are the subject of a new report from the Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project and the Imagining the Internet Center at Elon University. The researchers asked "digital stakeholders"--scientists, entrepreneurs, software developers, government officials, futurists and lawyers, to name a few--to predict whether by 2020 Big Data will improve social, political, and economic intelligence or cause more problems than it solves.

When forced to pick a side, the digital stakeholders were divided on this question, with 53 percent seeing the glass half full, and 39 percent seeing it half empty. Many of them, not surprisingly, were quick to point out that the reality will likely include a little of both perspectives.

As we know, Big Data advocates predict enhanced productivity, efficiency and innovation as a result of the collection, aggregation, sharing and analysis of growing mountains of information. But others foresee social and political problems, fearing that governments and corporations will wield inflated powers, and people will not know how to protect themselves and their privacy.

The Pew report offers a nice variety of views, raising a host of questions about the ability of societies, businesses and individuals to leverage Big Data--and the systems that enable it as well as those that it enables--effectively and responsibly. One of the most interesting questions in the report, to me, looks at the role of human judgment in the world of Big Data.

The report points out that among the main values seen in Big Data is its potential to replace human decision-making with automated algorithms. To me, this is really an extension of the age-old application of standardization, automation and analytical methods to create economies of scale and produce business efficiencies. To err is human, so it follows that reducing the role of human judgment can reduce error.

But is there a limit to replacing human judgment with data and systems? Some eminent thinkers believe there is. Michel J. Menou, a visiting professor in the information studies department at University College London, expressed it nicely: "The intelligence of systems cannot substitute for the intelligence of the individuals and organizations that use them. Since efforts are focused on the development of technology at the expense of education, consciousness raising, and democratic control, negative effects are the more likely to occur." 

We cannot automate common sense and good judgment. The capacity to exercise reason, discernment and ingenuity is vital not only in the upper echelons of an organization but throughout, and no amount of data and analytics can truly replace these faculties. Any shopper who has run into a glitch at the grocery check-out counter lately and tried to explain to the teenage cashier how to apply simple math in the real world knows this. Any consumer who has tried to rectify a billing problem with an insurance company's call center agent knows this. Illustrations of the limitations of standardized systems and automation in the absence of human judgment are legion.

A chilling demonstration of the error of venerating systems at the expense of human judgment came to light in early July, when a lifeguard at a Florida beach was fired for going about 1500 feet outside his zone to help save a drowning man. The system of lifeguard protection zones obviously aims to serve the twin purposes of efficiency and liability protection, but its rigid application was a disservice to the notions of humanity and civilization. There was undoubtedly careful data analytics underpinning the lifeguard protection zone system, and I'm sure it was the kind of systemization that enhanced the company's profitability. But when a swimmer in the vicinity was struggling not to die, data and systems didn't matter.

After a tsunami of public outrage over the firing ensued, the company--a contractor to the city--offered to rehire the lifeguard, but he declined. (Another example of good judgment on the part of the young man.) Fortunately, there are still employees capable of exercising judgment, even in an environment of strict systems and processes. We should use our technological wherewithal to encourage, not wipe out, this critical human resource. - Caron