Big Data Needs a Big Theory to Go with It

Just as the industrial age produced the laws of thermodynamics, we need universal laws of complexity to solve our seemingly intractable problems
globe, big data, pie chart
globe, big data, pie chart

Eva Vazquez

As the world becomes increasingly complex and interconnected, some of our biggest challenges have begun to seem intractable. What should we do about uncertainty in the financial markets? How can we predict energy supply and demand? How will climate change play out? How do we cope with rapid urbanization? Our traditional approaches to these problems are often qualitative and disjointed and lead to unintended consequences. To bring scientific rigor to the challenges of our time, we need to develop a deeper understanding of complexity itself.

What does this mean? Complexity comes into play when there are many parts that can interact in many different ways so that the whole takes on a life of its own: it adapts and evolves in response to changing conditions. It can be prone to sudden and seemingly unpredictable changes—a market crash is the classic example. One or more trends can reinforce other trends in a “positive feedback loop” until things swiftly spiral out of control and cross a tipping point, beyond which behavior changes radically.

What makes a “complex system” so vexing is that its collective characteristics cannot easily be predicted from underlying components: the whole is greater than, and often significantly different from, the sum of its parts. A city is much more than its buildings and people. Our bodies are more than the totality of our cells. This quality, called emergent behavior, is characteristic of economies, financial markets, urban communities, companies, organisms, the Internet, galaxies and the health care system.

The digital revolution is driving much of the increasing complexity and pace of life we are now seeing, but this technology also presents an opportunity. The ubiquity of cell phones and electronic transactions, the increasing use of personal medical probes, and the concept of the electronically wired “smart city” are already providing us with enormous amounts of data. With new computational tools and techniques to digest vast, interrelated databases, researchers and practitioners in science, technology, business and government have begun to bring large-scale simulations and models to bear on questions formerly out of reach of quantitative analysis, such as how cooperation emerges in society, what conditions promote innovation, and how conflicts spread and grow.

The trouble is, we don't have a unified, conceptual framework for addressing questions of complexity. We don't know what kind of data we need, nor how much, or what critical questions we should be asking. “Big data” without a “big theory” to go with it loses much of its potency and usefulness, potentially generating new unintended consequences.

When the industrial age focused society's attention on energy in its many manifestations—steam, chemical, mechanical, and so on—the universal laws of thermodynamics came as a response. We now need to ask if our age can produce universal laws of complexity that integrate energy with information. What are the underlying principles that transcend the extraordinary diversity and historical contingency and interconnectivity of financial markets, populations, ecosystems, war and conflict, pandemics and cancer? An overarching predictive, mathematical framework for complex systems would, in principle, incorporate the dynamics and organization of any complex system in a quantitative, computable framework.

We will probably never make detailed predictions of complex systems, but coarse-grained descriptions that lead to quantitative predictions for essential features are within our grasp. We won't predict when the next financial crash will occur, but we ought to be able to assign a probability of one occurring in the next few years. The field is in the midst of a broad synthesis of scientific disciplines, helping reverse the trend toward fragmentation and specialization, and is groping toward a more unified, holistic framework for tackling society's big questions. The future of the human enterprise may well depend on it.

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This article was originally published with the title "Wisdom in Numbers."

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