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O'Reilly: Future is about data, not software algorithms


In a fascinating interview with Forbes Editor Jon Bruner, publisher and thinker Tim O'Reilly waxed eloquently about the increasing importance of data as we move forward.

O'Reilly was talking in the context of maps and mobile devices, but his overall hypothesis, that data is increasingly what's going to matter is what came shining through.

And his ultimate conclusion: "The guy with the most data wins."

To illustrate this, O'Reilly spoke about Google's autonomous autos and how good they have become at accurate driving. He stressed that, it's not that the artificial intelligence that operates the car has gotten better over the last several years, it's that the cars have more data. And that data came from Google Street View.

He explained that the AI algorithms let the car know things like collision detection, but when it comes to where to go -- it's using data that came from the Street View project to very specifically understand location.

O'Reilly said when Google developed Street View it was cool, but only moderately useful to most of us. Most people didn't switch to Street View, but what it was doing ultimately was gathering intricate data, -- what O'Reilly called a "treasure trove."

And O'Reilly says that as you gather that kind of data you can begin to find new uses for it. In this case, it's making an autonomous vehicle operate better, but it could be any number of things.

And as we build sensors into more items and in the surrounding world, that ability to interact and build new services based on a machine-level understanding of where we are in the world will lead to more sophisticated services.

What we're seeing today is companies like Google collecting as much data as they can to be in control of what O'Reilly calls "superstar databases." These folks who control the big important databases are going to have tremendous leverage when it comes to business, to the extent that O'Reilly sees a future where data could be the source of monopoly power.

It also goes to this notion that data will be the source of lock-ins in the future, and it will no longer be software algorithms as it tends to be today. That means that in the not-to-distant future, the Google search algorithm is no longer going to be the big money producer for the company, but the databases will be -- assuming his vision is accurate.

That said, there are other independent sources of data developing outside of commercial circles. In the mapping game, there is the OpenStreetMap project, which O'Reilly says is "doing a pretty damn good job of building a useful alternative."

In a somewhat different view, Tim Berners-Lee wants data to be free. In a TED talk in 2009 he discussed is vision for a data-driven web. He wants the web to move away from being just document-driven to a web of inter-locked data which enables machine to machine communications. As Berners-Lee pointed out, when he built the web, he had no idea whatsoever it would become. It developed in ways he never imagined.

And he wants data to move as freely as information does now on the web. O'Reilly described a future of data ownership, but touched upon free data alternatives. Berners-Lee wants a world of where data isn't owned in silos, but is open and available.

This clash of ideas will be fought on the web in the coming years. As O'Reilly alluded to, the decisions about how we use data and commercialize it moving forward will have a profound impact on the future of the web -- and on businesses that make use of it and make money from it.

See the Forbes interview with Tim O'Reilly in its entirety below:

See the Tim Berners-Lee TED talk below:

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