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

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Big Data starts with ... a lot of data. Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt has said that we now uncover as much data in 48 hours – 1.8 zettabytes (that's 1,800,000,000,000,000,000,000 bytes) – as humans gathered from "the dawn of civilization to the year 2003."

You read that right. The head of a company receiving 50 billion search requests a day believes people now gather in a few days more data than humans have done throughout almost all of history.

Mr. Schmidt's claim has doubters. But similar assertions crop up from people not prone to exaggeration, such as Massachusetts Institute of Technology researcher Andrew McAfee and MIT professor Erik Brynjolfsson, authors of the new book "Race Against the Machine."

"More data crosses the Internet every second," they write, "than were stored in the entire Internet 20 years ago."

A key driver of the growth of data is the way we've digitized many of our everyday activities, such as shopping (increasingly done online) or downloading music. Another factor: our dependence on electronic devices, all of which leave digital footprints every time we send an e-mail, search online, post a message, text, or tweet.

Virtually every institution in society, from government to the local utility, is churning out its own torrent of electronic digits – about our billing records, our employment, our electricity use. Add in the huge array of sensors that now exist, measuring everything from traffic flow to the spoilage of fruit during shipment, and the world is awash in information that we had no way to uncover before – all aggregated and analyzed by increasingly powerful computers.

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