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The new age of algorithms: How it affects the way we live

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Spikes in queries like "My kid is sick" signaled a flu outbreak before the CDC knew there would be one. That posed a new question for Dr. Rothman and his colleague Andrea Dugas:

Could Google help predict influenza outbreaks in time to allow hospitals like the one at Johns Hopkins to get ready?

They ask different questions. But all five of these researchers form part of the new world of Big Data – a phenomenon that may, for better or worse, revolutionize every facet of life, culture, and, well, even the planet. From curbing urban crime to calculating the effectiveness of a tennis player's backhand, people are now gathering and analyzing vast amounts of data to predict human behaviors, solve problems, identify shopping habits, thwart terrorists – everything but foretell which Hollywood scripts might make blockbusters. Actually, there's a company poring through numbers to do that, too.

Just four years ago, someone wanted to do a Wikipedia entry on Big Data. Wikipedia said no; there was nothing special about the term – it just combined two common words. Today, Big Data seems everywhere, ushering in what advocates consider some of the biggest changes since Euclid.

Want to get elected to public office? Put a bunch of computer geeks in a room and have them comb through databases to glean who might vote for you – then target them with micro-tailored messages, as President Obama famously did in 2012.

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