How Will Big Data and Artificial Intelligence Change Science?

by Jamie Vernon | May 15, 2018

Sigma Xi Speaks, May 2018

Sigma Xi members, affiliates, and explorers discuss critical issues in science as part of the Society’s Quarterly Conversations initiative.

Jamie L. Vernon

It’s not an accident that artificial intelligence is experiencing a surge in its ability to solve global problems. Just five years ago, analysts estimated that the world generated approximately 4.4 zettabytes of data. Today they’re predicting that by 2020 we’ll be producing as much as 44 zettabytes annually. That’s 44 trillion gigabytes. As this information has become available, data scientists have developed tools to extract insights from it. These tools are rapidly replacing the people who once served as the gatekeepers to new discoveries.

How will the new data frontier ultimately affect scientists? Some claim that science may soon be dominated not by people but instead by computers. Even the revered practice of observation and prediction—core elements in the scientific process and once the domain of the lone genius—is being challenged. With the right software and ever-cheaper hardware, even a non-expert in the field can identify cause and effect relationships within large data sets. We’re beginning to see the impact of these efforts in every area of research. 

The Google Brain Team, part of Google’s Artificial Intelligence Division, is using machines to tackle a major public health issue: cardiovascular diseases. They developed an algorithm that can predict a person’s risk of a heart attack or stroke with similar accuracy as other risk-determining calculators. However, rather than requiring a blood draw to measure cholesterol, as other risk-determining calculators do, the Brain Team’s procedure uses computer vision to process pictures of patients’ retinas, a noninvasive technique. 

Similarly, big data will soon change the face of astronomy. In an effort to accelerate astronomical discoveries, engineers have built the mother of all telescopes, called the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, or LSST. The LSST will be equipped with a massive, three-ton digital camera that will be able to cover the entire southern sky in just three days. It will generate petabytes of data that will be immediately distributed around the world for instant analysis. 

In the past, astronomers were lucky to reserve a few nights worth of observations on one of the few high-powered telescopes in the world. This process, if well planned and efficiently executed, could allow the astronomer to observe a few dozen or a few hundred objects. In contrast, the LSST is expected to identify 20 billion galaxies and 17 billion stars in its first decade of operation. Artificial intelligence will play a major role in identifying these objects, thereby changing the relationship between the scientists and their data.

Although we understand how big data is already changing how research is being done, there are many questions to be answered about how we can respond to these changes. There is a need for in-depth conversations about the ethics of data collection, analysis, usage, how we will communicate discoveries when the process is largely computer-driven, and how the current scientific infrastructure system will need to adapt to accommodate big data-based research initiatives. 

This October, Sigma Xi will host its Annual Meeting and Student Research Conference in Burlingame, California. The theme of the meeting is Big Data and the Future of Research. Attendees will discuss the opportunities and challenges facing scientists as we advance toward a big data-driven scientific enterprise. We hope you’ll register to join us and bring your colleagues and students. They'll also need to know how the future of science is changing.

We’re expecting that our featured speakers, including Jeff Dean, senior fellow and head of Artificial Intelligence at Google, and Steve Ritz, subsystem scientist for the LSST camera, will stimulate lively conversations that all scientists will want to be a part of. 

There’s no reason to wait, though. You can dive right into this conversation, as it will be the topic of our fourth quarterly conversation in Sigma Xi’s online member community, The Lab. You can also discuss big data in your Sigma Xi chapter, or send your thoughts to


Jamie Vernon signature

Jamie L. Vernon, PhD
Executive Director and CEO
Sigma Xi, The Scientific Research Honor Society
Publisher of American Scientist

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