As graduation season approaches, more than a few students have asked me what the best jobs of the future will be. I often respond with a few questions of my own:
Can you predict how Americans’ shopping habits will change over the next 18 months? Do you know when a water main is about to break? How about spotting a rogue trader who is secretly trying to fleece an international bank?
You don’t need to be clairvoyant to figure those things out. But you do need to possess the skill set of a 21st-century problem solver and critical thinker.
And solving problems today is all about data. As any leader in business or public service will tell you – there is simply too much of it. Data about all sorts of things: finances, products, regulations, environmental factors, current events, consumer behavior, the list goes on.
In fact, the past few decades has witnessed a veritable renaissance in data generation. The codified information base of the world is believed to double every 11 hours. One example — the next time you’re driving on the highway, consider that traffic flow is most likely being monitored by sensors in the road as well as by traffic cameras mounted on lightposts or overpasses. Buses equipped with GPS devices might even be feeding a steady stream of location and speed data to transportation officials in a nearby operations center. Just imagine the torrent of information generated in just a few minutes on a single stretch of highway.
But collecting the data, by itself, doesn’t get you much. And this is the point that I make to today’s young graduates: to be truly valuable, mere data needs to be turned into knowledge. Those who can do that will be in demand.
Practitioners skilled in analytics can create algorithms that study a trader’s incredibly complex sell and buy patterns to determine whether he is quietly covering his tracks while engaging in a massive fraud. Another set of algorithms can help water utilities predict when an old water main is on the verge of failing, enabling managers to change out the pipe before problems occur.
The science behind all this is in the midst of a golden age, as was readily apparent to anyone who watched the recent Jeopardy! match pitting the Watson computing system against the game’s two all-time champions. Watson represents a leap forward in artificial intelligence that can analyze human language and answer complex questions extremely fast. On Jeopardy!, Watson correctly responded to the kind of complex clues that the show is famous for.
This amazing technology is now being applied to applications that will benefit society. In the future, Watson will serve as the foundation of a digital medical assistant, helping doctors diagnose diseases and make treatment recommendations in real time. Watson could also enable traffic planners to provide drivers with custom-tailored answers to a broad range of traffic-related questions – such as, What’s the best route to work if I leave now? Will it be better if I wait 15 minutes? It could deliver the dream of the personalized commute, presenting you with the best options to get where you’re going.
Why stop there? Watson technology could give business people the ability to get answers quickly to incredibly difficult questions about strategic decisions and market changes. It could offer the ultimate customer service experience.
What skills are required to succeed in this new era of computing? Mathematics, software engineering, collaboration and communication skills and technology and information literacy will be table stakes for those endeavoring to develop analytics systems that derive insight from information. Also important will be knowledge of data visualization and discrete choice modeling, which attempts to understand the decisions people make when faced with a finite number of choices.
But the job seekers who are most successful will not be pure theoreticians. They will have the business savvy necessary to apply math to real-world problems. They’ll have expertise in a particular industry or two, whether it’s retail, healthcare, financial services or green energy.
Perhaps the most important attribute is a keen sense of what’s possible. The idea of a machine winning on Jeopardy! seemed like science fiction right up to the moment it happened.
We live in an era of swift changes, big challenges and even bigger opportunities. Today’s graduates who possess the skills to master the world of “Big Data” will have the chance to solve some of society’s most intractable problems.
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