Human Brain Research: Global Initiatives – An Update

Fotolia_38342751_S-blog4In previous posts we have introduced the topic of brain research, attempted to explain its importance, summarized global initiatives focused on brain research, and described some of the new tools and technologies being used in brain research. In this post, we provide an update on the progress (or lack thereof) being made as a result of the global initiatives.

First, we focus on the “US BRAIN Initiative” that was launched in the spring of 2013. Since then, Congress has appropriated significant and increased levels of funding each year for this initiative. For 2018 this amounts to $400 million. The National Institutes of Health (NIH); working in partnership with government agencies, universities, foundations, and industry; uses this funding to award research grants in seven specific aspects of brain research. Information about funding, the alliances, and summaries of past and current grants can be found on the NIH Web site https://www.braininitiative.nih.gov/. It appears that the US BRAIN initiative is well funded, active, and starting to produce results.

Next, we turn to the European Union’s effort, also launched in 2013 – the “Human Brain Project” (HBP). Here, the news isn’t as positive, as the title of a 2015 article in Scientific American indicates: “Why the Human Brain Project Went Wrong—and How to Fix It. Two years in, a $1-billion-plus effort to simulate the human brain is in disarray…” (1) In a nutshell, the EU awarded $1.3 billion to one neuroscientist as the project leader for one big project – his. And things quickly fell apart. This led to a radical overhaul in management and project structure. As an IEEE article states “The massive €1 billion project has shifted focus from simulation to informatics.” (2) The article goes on to explain: “After a rocky, controversial start, the HBP is now building infrastructure that includes high-performance computing, data analytics, and simulation and modeling software.” But are things better? It’s hard to tell. However, a couple of things are clear. There is significant money available and there are a number of active research projects. Visit the Web site yourself and decide: https://www.humanbrainproject.eu/en/.

Now, an update on the smaller Japanese effort – the “Brain/MINDS Project,” initiated in 2014. A detailed description and interim update was published in 2016 which outlines structure, objectives, projects, and actual funding ($365 million spread over 10 years). (3) More information can be found on the Project’s Web site: http://brainminds.jp/en/. From all indications, the project has been active since 2014 and producing results.

Finally, we turn to China and their “China Brain Project” (announced in mid 2016). Detailed information on this “project” is difficult to find, but there are at least two specific actions:

  1. In the summer of 2017, China announced the opening of the HUST-Suzhou Institute for Brainsmatics in Suzhou China. With a 5-year budget of $67 million and plans to hire around 120 scientists and technicians, the objective of the Institute is to “make industrial-scale high-resolution brain mapping a standard tool for neuroscience.” (4) The Allen Institute for Brain Science, the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York, and Stanford University in California have formed partnerships with this new center.
  2. In March of this year, the Chinese Institute for Brain Research in Beijing was officially established. Around 50 researchers will have laboratories at the new center, and external grants will support around 100 investigators throughout China. The Center will be a partnership between Beijing’s premier biomedical institutions, among them the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the Academy of Military Medical Sciences, Peking University and Tsinghua University. (5)

In addition, other programs and centers around China are being created. Funding appears to be available for these multiple efforts and centers, but finding enough researchers is likely to be a challenge. However, if China is successful in meeting this challenge, they may establish a clear leadership position in this technology area.

So, is understanding the human brain a race or a global partnership? Only time will tell. Your thoughts?


  1. Stefan Theil, “Why the Human Brain Project Went Wrong—and How to Fix It,” Scientific American, October 1, 2015, https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/why-the-human-brain-project-went-wrong-and-how-to-fix-it/
  2. Megan Scudellari, “The Human Brain Project Reboots: A Search Engine for the Brain Is in Sight,” IEEE SPECTRUM, June 21, 2017, https://spectrum.ieee.org/computing/hardware/the-human-brain-project-reboots-a-search-engine-for-the-brain-is-in-sight
  3. Hideyuki Okano et al, “Brain/MINDS: A Japanese National Brain Project for Marmoset Neuroscience,” Neuron 92, November 2, 2016, https://www.cell.com/neuron/pdf/S0896-6273(16)30719-X.pdf
  4. David Cyranoski, Nature, August 17, 2017, https://www.nature.com/news/china-launches-brain-imaging-factory-1.22456
  5. David Cyranoski, Nature, April 5, 2018, “Beijing launches pioneering brain-science centre: China’s much-anticipated brain initiative finally starts to take shape,” https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-018-04122-3 

Human Brain Research – The Developing Tools

Nano TechnologyInnovation. Technology breakthroughs. Interdisciplinary efforts. All of this is providing the opportunity for more scientific and comprehensive brain research. More specifically, the convergence of breakthroughs in biogenetics, nanotechnology, and neuroscience; coupled with advanced microelectronics and data processing; has led to new tools and devices for brain research and understanding. We highlight a few of these to show the possibilities.

First there are advanced imaging technologies that have led to new techniques and instrumentation that is already being used. Short summaries of the most common are provided in a post on psychcentral.com. (1) These include:

  • PET (Positron Emission Tomography). PET uses small amounts of radioactive materials injected into the body, a special camera, and a computer to evaluate organ and tissue functions. By identifying changes at the cellular level, PET appears be able to detect which parts of the brain are affected during specific tasks.
  • Variations of Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) such as Functional MRI (fMRI) and Diffusion MRI (also called Diffusion Tensor Imaging – DTI). With fMRI the small changes in blood flow that occur with brain activity are measured and mapped. Thus, it is possible to determine which parts of the brain are handling critical functions or to evaluate the effects of stroke or other disease. With DTI the diffusion of water molecules in the brain is measured. Since water molecules within brain tissue tend to diffuse most rapidly along parallel bundles of fibers, this makes it possible to estimate the location, orientation, and anisotropy of the brain’s white matter tracts. In other words, it is possible to measure the pathways and structure of fiber nerve bundles connecting various parts of the brain. This understanding of which part of the brain is connected (or not connected) to which other parts can be used to investigate brain “malfunctions” due to injury or disease.
  • Magnetoencephalography (MEG). Instead of measuring electrical impulses, MEG measures magnetic fields outside the head, produced by electrical activity occurring naturally in the brain. Thus, it is possible to produce far more precise and higher resolution images of the brain than before and even to determine the function of various parts of the brain. To do this, very sensitive arrays of magnetometers called SQUIDS (superconducting quantum interference devices developed by quantum physicists) are used. Typically, these sensors are housed in a cooled, helmet-shaped container in which the subject places on their head during testing.

To summarize, the above tools allow researchers to identify the parts of the brain that are active during a specific task or event by showing on a screen the parts of the brain that “light up” under different circumstances. Why is this important? Unlike earlier beliefs, it has now been observed that even relatively simple tasks require the activation of numerous and specific interconnected parts of the brain. Therefore, understanding brain connections and interactions is much more important in addressing brain issues such as injury or dementia than was previously thought.

But these imaging techniques are only a start. Following are a few examples of developing, longer-range possibilities.

  • In one example, real time imaging of interactions at the cellular level, coupled with advanced data processing, is being used to reveal patterns of neural activity. Specifically, “Scientists have devised a new system that lets them watch human neurons grown in the lab find and form connections with their signaling partners, an essential process in developing human brains. The processing of “wiring up” is thought to go awry in a number of serious disorders, including autism, epilepsy and schizophrenia – but it’s hard to study.” (2)
  • And there is another experimental approach to creating brain wiring diagrams that combines genetic engineering and nanoscale imaging. This technique monitors biofluorescence in insect brains to create maps of the neural connections of the entire brains. In other words, “Scientists have developed new technology that allows them to see which neurons are talking to which other neurons in live, genetically engineered fruit flies.” This technology which traces the flow of information across synapses is called TRACT (Transneuronal Control of Transcription). “TRACT allows researchers to observe which neurons are “talking” and which neurons are “listening” by prompting the connected neurons to produce glowing proteins.” (3)
  • And then there is the gene editing technology called CRISPR. This technique has been used to create genetic mutations that have been associated with neurodevelopmental disorders, making it possible to study these “defects” in the laboratory. (4)
  • One final example. There is a new, high-sensitivity, laser-based technique that can be used to look inside a person’s skull and measure brain blood flow. This technique, based on Diffuse Correlation Spectroscopy (DCS), is called “interferometric diffusing wave spectroscopy,” or iDWS. “Laser light is shined on the head; as photons from the laser pass through the skull and brain, they are scattered by blood and tissue. A detector placed elsewhere on the head, where the photons make their way out again, picks up the light fluctuations due to blood motion.” (6) The information gathered about blood flow can be used to help patients with traumatic brain injuries and strokes.

As the above examples show, progress is being made rapidly in developing new tools for brain research and understanding. But all of this is just a start. In future blogs we will give additional examples of new techniques, how they are being utilized, and even some results. You are welcome to comment or add to our list.


  1. Michael Demitri, “Types of Brain Imaging Techniques,” July 17, 2016, https://psychcentral.com/lib/types-of-brain-imaging-techniques/
  2. Sergiu P. Pasca, “New Technique Lets Researchers Watch Human Brain Circuits Begin to Wire-Up,” July 18, 2017, https://www.bbrfoundation.org/content/new-technique-lets-researchers-watch-human-brain-circuits-begin-wire
  3. “New technology will create brain wiring diagrams,” California Institute of Technology, January 12, 2018, https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/01/180112095938.htm
  4. Michael Talkowski, “Genetic Anomalies Frequently Associated with Neurodevelopmental Disorders Can Now Be Efficiently Recreated in the Lab,” April 11, 2016, https://www.bbrfoundation.org/content/genetic-anomalies-frequently-associated-neurodevelopmental-disorders-can-now-be-efficiently
  5. “New technology for measuring brain blood flow with light,” University of California – Davis, April 11, 2018, https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/04/180427144549.htm

Human Brain Research: Major Investments Around the Globe

Economic PowersIn the last few years, there has been an increased awareness of the importance of advanced brain research, and this has been accompanied by major investments by governments around the globe. So, who are the key players, and what are their goals? We start with our own country.

In support of broader brain research, on April 2, 2013 President Obama launched the so-called “BRAIN Initiative.” It stands for “Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neuro-technologies.” Three government agencies are involved: The National Institutes of Health (NIH), The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and The National Science Foundation (NSF). The White House offered this description of the possible long-term outcomes of the more than one billion dollar BRAIN Initiative: “The BRAIN Initiative has the potential to do for neuroscience what the Human Genome Project did for genomics by supporting the development and application of innovative technologies that can create a dynamic understanding of brain function. It aims to help researchers uncover the mysteries of brain disorders, such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, depression, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and traumatic brain injury (TBI).” More information can be found on the Web site braininitiative.org.

In addition, a report issued by NIH in June 2014 entitled “Brain 2025, A Scientific Vision” states: “Over recent years, neuroscience has advanced to the level that we can envision a comprehensive understanding of the brain in action, spanning molecules, cells, circuits, systems, and behaviors… The focus [of the BRAIN Initiative] is not on technology per se, but on the development and use of tools for acquiring fundamental insight about how the nervous system works in health and disease.”

But the United States is not alone in large, high priority, billion dollar efforts to understand the human brain. Also in 2013, the European Union launched a major effort, parallel to the U.S. BRAIN Initiative, called “The Human Brain Project.” The main aim of this project, as described on its Web site (humanbrainproject.eu), is to “empower brain research toward understanding the human brain and its diseases to advance brain medicine and computing technology.” Specifically, the European project is focused on helping researchers access and share collections of brain data from different species, thus allowing them to accelerate the understanding of the brain through advanced computer simulations. It is believed this will ultimately lead to the development of targeted new treatments and diagnosis for brain related diseases and trigger new approaches to brain inspired systems for AI (artificial intelligence) and robotics.

Then in 2014, Japan initiated its ten-year Brain/MINDS (Brain Mapping by Integrated Neurotechnologies for Disease Studies) Project. Its goal is to map the primate brain to accelerate understanding of human disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease and schizophrenia. Although this program is much smaller than its U.S. and European counterparts, it is seen as key because it is based on a unique, genetic primate population which is a closer match to the human brain than the small animals being used in other projects. For more information see the Web site brainminds.jp/en and the October 2014 article in Nature (1)

And one cannot ignore China. The 2016 Chinese R&D five-year plan lists Brain Research as one of the nation’s top priorities, with resources to be channeled through the “China Brain Project.” Although China has lagged the US and Europe in brain research, this focus and the accompanying investment may change that. As noted in an article in Nature in 2016: “China’s neuroscience community is growing — the Chinese Neuroscience Society now has 6,000 members, compared to just 1,500 ten years ago; the country has tens of millions of patients with psychiatric or degenerative brain disease that will facilitate clinical studies; and it has hundreds of thousands of research monkeys. This last factor has already allowed Chinese researchers to take the lead in using gene-editing technologies to produce models of autism and other conditions.” (2)

So, the foundations have been laid, but many things have changed on the world stage since 2013. As far as the US is concerned, the level of government support for science research is a growing issue. If budgets are tight, what should the priority of brain research be? What are the recent results from these initiatives/projects? Does it matter whether the US has a leadership position? These are some of the questions we will address in future posts.


 

  1. David Cyranoski, “Marmosets are stars of Japan’s ambitious brain project: Ten-year brain-mapping effort will use monkeys to study human neural and mental disorders,” Nature, October 8, 2014, https://www.nature.com/news/marmosets-are-stars-of-japan-s-ambitious-brain-project-1.16091
  2. David Cyranoski, “What China’s latest five-year plan means for science: Oceanography, brain science and stem cells among research fields that look set to grow,” Nature, March 18, 2016, https://www.nature.com/news/what-china-s-latest-five-year-plan-means-for-science-1.19590#/brain

 

Human Brain Research – An Introduction

Brain IntelligenceHumans have explored much of the earth and some of the depths of the oceans, but there is something even more mysterious and powerful which is much closer to us. It is the human brain, the most complex living structure that we know of in the universe! But to date, the human brain has only been explored in a relatively limited fashion.

We know that the human brain inspires or controls not just our actions, but our emotions and personalities, our likes and our dislikes, our beliefs and our cravings. In other words, we know that many observable effects originate from the human brain—physical movements, mental diseases, old-age dementia, cowardice, piety, cruelty, habits, fanaticism, and more. But we have only limited knowledge about which specific structures and/or interconnections within the brain cause such effects, and more important, how. Thus, we are primitive in our trial-and-error approaches to modifying those physical and mental traits considered harmful with things such as drugs or electrical stimulation or surgical interventions.

One thing we do know: The brain is not just a rational computer. It directs the actions and affects the beliefs of an individual, but it varies from one individual to the next. Think about the contradictions created by brains of very different people. The brain of Hitler made him kill seven million of his citizens, mostly because they were Jewish; while the brain of Mother Theresa made her help hundreds of people who were too poor to help themselves, no matter what their race or religion. Genghis Kahn, known as the “scourge of God,” is famous for his extreme acts of cruelty during his conquests in western Europe; while Francis of Assisi practiced charity to all living beings, including (unusual for the times) animals. These are just a few examples of individuals who were led by their brains to live very different lives.

We also know that, controlled by their brains, different people react differently to unusual circumstances, such as “silence and solitude.” This type of environment can spur creativity in some but can lead to insanity in others. And both insanity and creativity can coexist in the same brain as in the case of famous artists like Van Gogh.

The human brain also has caused specific populations to migrate across the globe over time, ultimately populating the whole earth. But not all populations were led to move from their original location. Some preferred to stay where they were, even if the environments were extremely harsh. Why?

And the human brain allows us to transmit ideas and knowledge from one generation to the next. As J. F. Kennedy once said, referring to democracy, “A man may die. Nations rise and fall. But an idea lives on. Ideas have endurance without death.”

What would advances and breakthroughs in understanding and controlling the human brain mean for humanity and the business community? The possibilities are vast, and progress is being made. The 2014 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded to John O’Keefe, May-Britt Moser, and Edvard Moser for discovering the networks of cells that form the brain’s navigational system. This fundamental work in neuroscience on a nanoscale could have applications in Alzheimer’s and other diseases, but it is just the beginning. Through brain research, we may find infinite new ways to harness its power and use it—for good or for bad. We do not know yet what they all are, but they will have a major impact on humanity, including human interactions and even business interactions.

So, what are the major brain research programs? What new tools are available for investigating how the brain functions? What are the latest results? We will explore these questions and more in future blogs. If you are interested, check back occasionally and feel free to add your comments or make suggestions for future topics.

The Business Challenges of Globalization

October 18, 2017 Leave a comment


 

Taken from Creating New Superstars by Carol and Ennio Fatuzzo (1)

 

IMG_0065In spite of the chaotic world around us, the risks involved in playing some types of games haven’t changed. For example, playing roulette, whether it is Russian roulette or the more civilized version in Monaco, is the same as it always has been. However, in today’s fast paced environment, the “game” of business has become a much more dangerous venture. Developing a new business or expanding an existing one involves a whole new dimension of risk due to many developing “agents of change.” Globalization, including the rapidly expanding global economy and the consequences of global competition, is one of the most powerful influences.

On a positive note, globalization significantly increases potential market sizes, creating extremely attractive and visible business growth opportunities. Just think about the worldwide explosion of smartphones, or the rapid expansion of wine import and export businesses, or the huge potential for new cancer drugs. Even water is now a global opportunity, as the recent history of San Pellegrino shows. Twenty years ago it was a relatively unknown Italian mineral water. Today, it is distributed worldwide to more than 120 countries on five continents. (2) But with size comes different challenges.

Highly visible, big growth opportunities create new global competitors that were never before threats―Korean car manufacturers, Indian software developers, Chinese computer and internet-based companies, and more. The bottom line: More companies around the world are likely to be pursuing the same specific growth opportunity at the same time. Therefore, the risk of failure for any single company is high—significantly higher than in the past.

Looking at the situation another way, in the past a company had a reasonable possibility of being the only one pursuing a good new opportunity—one that was unrecognized by others. And that resulted in many single-company big successes: Kodak and silver halide film, IBM and computers, Motorola and cell phones, RCA and consumer electronics, and more. But in today’s dynamic global economy, due to the growing technical sophistication of global competitors and the faster pace of everything, there will not be many “lone pioneers.”

And there is another kind of challenge. Pursuing larger global opportunities requires greater resources than what are needed to be successful with smaller, “local” opportunities. This results in the financial risk being much higher, sometimes high enough to place an entire company in jeopardy. If a global project fails, for whatever reason, that failure is extremely costly. Kodak having to declare Chapter 11 bankruptcy as a result of its late and unsuccessful attempt to become a major global player in digital photography is a good example of today’s high cost of failure. (3)

But the risk of large financial investments isn’t the only challenge involving resources. In the past, under-resourcing a project or using resources ineffectively did not matter as much as it does today. Why? Any such “mistakes” will slow down progress; and in a faster paced and more competitive business world, this decreased speed will almost certainly create a significant competitive disadvantage. This, in turn, greatly increases the probability of a costly failure in the marketplace.

And finally, because of today’s need for speed, failure is not only is connected to making wrong or bad decisions. It frequently is the result of making good decisions too slowly. Kodak’s eventual management decision to pursue digital photography was a good one, but the delay in making that decision was a major contributor to the effort’s failure. This delay gave global competitors an insurmountable lead.

Bottom line, in a highly competitive, global business environment that is rapidly changing, a slow decision will almost always be a wrong decision; and being late to the market almost always assures failure. Just as in nature, a slow company will become prey for the faster, more aggressive one.

 


1. Ennio Fatuzzo and Carol L. Fatuzzo, Creating New Superstars: a Guide to Businesses that Soar above the Sea of Normality (USA: September 2016). Available from amazon.com.

2. S. Pellegrino Company Website, accessed October 18, 2017, https://www.sanpellegrino.com/us/en/company-intl-41.

3. Rick Newman, “Four Lessons from Kodak’s Comedown,” U.S. News online, January 19, 2012, http://www.usnews.com/news/blogs/rick-newman/2012/01/19/4-lessons-from-kodaks-comedown; “The last Kodak moment?,” The Economist, January 13, 2012, accessed online October 18, 2017, http://www.economist.com/node/21542796.

A War Memoir Revisited: “The Death of the Julia Division”

August 31, 2017 Leave a comment

A TRUE WAR STORY BY GIACOMO FATUZZO

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In late 2014, we published the English translation of Giacomo Fatuzzo’s war memoir, “The Death of the Julia Division, Memoirs of an Officer.” This true story is the devastating chronicle of the destruction of the 3rd Alpine Division Julia in Italy’s war against Greece in 1940. It is an emotional, first-hand, day-by-day description of the challenges, the suffering endured, and the battles fought.

Giacomo’s moving words show the agony of a man who doesn’t believe the war he is fighting is justified but fights as hard as he can; the anger of an officer who knows that his superiors are making poor decisions from a remote location but still must follow the resulting orders; the commitment of a soldier who does his best in impossible circumstances and who suffers tremendously, as do all of those involved.

In Giacomo’s own words, on a lonely Christmas Day in the middle of a battlefield:

“I have sad thoughts. Who said that war is the mother of all things and of all things the queen, which sifts out the gods from the men, the slaves from the free? Heraclitus?

Here war does not sift. It mows indiscriminately, especially among the poor devils, and it is not the mother of all things. It generates only blood, pain, tears, and despair…

War sifts and devours the best, the most generous, the bravest, the most patient. But among those spared, there are still many who are generous, brave, and patient. They will remain in their positions and still will be the first to be engulfed in the furnace.”

And there is more. The reader journeys alongside Giacomo as he raises questions of loyalty to one’s country and to his men. The book forces the reader to grapple with haunting questions such as: “Who is responsible in time of war—the nation’s leaders who declare the war or the soldiers who fight it?” And, “As I look at the carnage I begin to wonder how hatred is born.” 

As you can see, “The Death of the Julia Division” isn’t a typical book about war. It is a beautifully written, emotionally moving work of art that raises timeless issues. If you are interested, this book is available from amazon in both paperback and kindle formats at http://amzn.to/2jAi45r.

For more information about “The Death of the Julia Division” and other books written by Giacomo, Ennio, and Carol Fatuzzo, visit our website: fatuzzobooks.com.

Big Data and YOU: The Promises and the Concerns

by Carol L. Fatuzzo and Ennio Fatuzzo

 

BACKGROUND

Web surveillanceIn our book “Creating New Superstars” (1) and in a previous blog, we focused on Big Data and Business. Now we take a brief look at the more personal side of Big Data: the reality, the promises, and the concerns.

As you must be aware, today vast quantities of data about people (including you) and their interactions with the outside world are being accumulated at unprecedented rates and stored in digital form. This rapidly increasing, already huge, storehouse of personal information is part of what is known as “Big Data.”

Where is this personal information coming from? Everything we do online, such as shopping and banking, leaves a record. But there are a growing number of other sources: social media, google, smartphones and other smart devices, electronic medical records, military and government data bases, surveillance cameras, and much more.

Collecting and storing personal Big Data digitally has become easy and is pervasive, but it is only the beginning. For this vast amount of information to be useful, there must be the ability to access the data rapidly and reliably; and there must be tools that can quickly analyze an immense amount of seemingly unrelated information, and make useful connections. And all of this is now reality. Faster and more powerful computers coupled with software advances (e.g., “artificial intelligence”) are rapidly opening doors to new analytic capabilities.

USES OF PERSONAL BIG DATA

Many large companies and organizations already have access to the growing collection of personal Big Data and are taking advantage of the advanced analytic capabilities. Common examples are targeted marketing and credit checks. And this is only the beginning. There are many less obvious ways personal Big Data is starting to impact your everyday life, including tracking your physical activities and location and even determining choices offered to you in bars and restaurants (2, 3).

Another growing use of Big Data is in sports. Not only individual players’ moves, but entire game strategies can be analyzed to improve players’ performances and/or game strategies. And then there are the fans. Analyzing fan generated Big Data is leading to techniques for generating stronger fan support and providing extra (and more profitable) event-based services. (4)

Then there is the healthcare segment. Here collection and analysis of personal Big Data is already leading to major advances such as improvements in healthcare outcomes (including saving lives), remote patient monitoring and real-time alerting, more cost-effective treatments, programs to prevents opioid abuse, accelerating cancer research, providing access to the latest treatments being tested, and much more. (5,6)

What we have described so far is only the beginning. To repeat, sources of personal Big Data are exploding (GPS tracking, wellness monitoring, surveillance of financial transactions, facial recognition, education records….) as are the capabilities for sophisticated analysis and uses for this data. And yes, the collection and use of personal Big Data has many positives. There is no question that the future benefits arising from the combination of big data and advanced analytics will be immense.

THE CONCERNS

But there is a downside. As summarized by McKinsey and Company: “Privacy issues will continue to be a major concern. Although new computer programs can readily remove names and other personal information from records being transported into large databases, stakeholders across the industry must be vigilant and watch for potential problems as more information becomes public.” (5)

But there is an even more serious concern. So far, we have focused on the use of personal Big Data by businesses and other private or public organizations. It is an entirely different situation when governments enter the arena. A number of articles have raised the concern about Big Data in the hands of government evolving into “Big Brother.” Following we repeat one example of this from our January blog “Big Data: An Exploding Agent of Change.”

Recent articles have focused on a data collection and analysis project being run by the Chinese communist party to develop what they call a “social-credit system.” (7, 8) To summarize, using Big Data technologies, the project’s objective is to develop a system to collect and categorize as “good” or “bad” all available information for each individual citizen. Ultimately, rewards for good behavior (e.g., prizes, better housing) and punishments for bad behavior (e.g., denial of permissions to travel or access to loans and services) would be handed out—all this aimed at improving the allegiance of citizens to the State.

Will China be successful? How far will other governments go towards using Big Data to become “Big Brother” watching over each citizen? Certainly, these are valid concerns. And for those who watch the Television series “A Person of Interest,” it may occur to them that the project described above is much more dangerous than the situation portrayed by the TV series. The latter only monitors each person in real time, but the Chinese scenario not only does this but also builds a history of everything each citizen has done and uses that information for its own purposes.

Yes, the growing availability and use of personal Big Data presents serious concerns. However, keep in mind that every breakthrough new technology has the potential for both good and bad. It all depends on the intentions of those who develop and apply the technology.


 

REFERENCES

1. Ennio Fatuzzo and Carol L. Fatuzzo, Creating New Superstars: A Guide to Businesses that Soar above the Sea of Normality (USA: September 2016). Available for purchase from amazon: http://amzn.to/2hAn6dy.

2. “Big Data in Our Everyday Life,” February 10, 2017, Nordic-IT, https://nordic-it.com/big-data-everyday-life/

3. Mona Lebied, “5 Big Data Examples in Your Real Life At Bars, Restaurants, and Casinos,” Business Intelligence, May 4th 2017, http://www.datapine.com/blog/big-data-examples-in-real-life/

4. “Big Data in Sports: Going for the Gold,” inside BIGDATA, June 4, 2017, https://insidebigdata.com/2017/06/04/big-data-sports-going-gold/

5. Basel Kayyali, David Knott, and Steve Van Kuiken, “The Big-Data Revolution in US Health Care: Accelerating Value and Innovation,” McKinsey & Company, http://www.mckinsey.com/industries/healthcare-systems-and-services/our-insights/the-big-data-revolution-in-us-health-care

6. Mona Lebied, “9 Examples of Big Data Analytics in Healthcare that can Save People, Business Intelligence, May 24th 2017, http://www.datapine.com/blog/big-data-examples-in-healthcare/

7. Jamie Condliffe, “China Turns Big Data into Big Brother,” MIT Technology Review, November 29, 2016, https://www.technologyreview.com/s/602987/china-turns-big-data-into-big-brother/

8. “China invents the digital totalitarian state: The worrying implications of its social-credit project,” The Economist, December 17, 2016, https://www.economist.com/news/briefing/21711902-worrying-implications-its-social-credit-project-china-invents-digital-totalitarian