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

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Want to solve poverty in Africa? Analyze text messages and social media networks to detect early signs of joblessness, epidemics, and other problems, as the United Nations is trying to do.

Eager to find the right mate? Use algorithms to analyze an infinite number of personality traits to determine who's the best match for you, as many online dating sites now do.

What exactly is Big Data? What makes it new? Different? What's the downside?

Such questions have evoked intense interest, especially since June 5. On that day, former National Security Agency analyst Edward Snowden revealed that, like Ms. Mandelbaum or Rothman, the NSA had also asked a question:

Can we find terrorists using Big Data – like the phone records of hundreds of millions of ordinary Americans? Could we get those records from, say, Verizon?

Mr. Snowden's disclosures revealed that PRISM, the program the NSA devised, secretly monitors calls, Web searches, and e-mails, in the United States and other countries.

The dark side of Big Data involves much more than Snowden's disclosure, or what the US does. And what made Big Data possible did not happen overnight. The term has been around for at least 15 years, though it's only recently become popular.

"It will be quite transformational," says Thomas Davenport, an information technology expert at Babson College in Wellesley, Mass., who co-wrote the widely used book "Competing on Analytics: The New Science of Winning."

What exactly will it transform? To find out, let's go back to the beginning.

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