looking out the window
Sure, we could manage without digital tools, but the worlds digital is opening up are getting bigger by the day PHOTO: Shutterstock

As I awoke on the first day of the new year, I felt the promise of a fresh start.

Then, with these lyrics from the iconic Beatles “A Day in the Life” running through my mind:

Woke up, fell out of bed
Dragged a comb across my head …

I began to think about how the day might progress without digital.

I wondered if it was snowing, so I started to open my weather app. But no, I couldn’t do that. I opened the window instead.

I wanted to go out for breakfast, so I started to text my neighbors to invite them to come along. No again. I walked next door and asked if they wanted to come with me.

I decided to read that best-seller, so I grabbed my Kindle. I mean, I grabbed that paperback Santa had left in my stocking and curled up in my favorite chair.

OK, you get the idea. It certainly seems at times that our lives are just fine without digital, thank you.

On the other hand, the modern digital era has given us important scientific, business and life-changing improvements. Here’s a look at three recent advances grounded in the data that digital creates, analyzes and controls.

Digital Data for Industry Dominance

Digital data is power, if it can be controlled, understood and made actionable. For example, while self-driving cars are at the center of a wave of change sweeping the automotive industry, digital data is the competitive fuel companies plan to use to dominate that change.

According to an article in Engadget, a patent application filed by Apple in 2015 described a logic system to inform autonomous driving and reveals the company’s plan to use driving data from many drivers to help the system “learn routes faster and more accurately than a single car with sensors alone.”

Meanwhile, Beijing-based Baidu plans industry domination through a new kind of automotive “aftermarket.” Wired reports that Robin Li, the company’s CEO, recently launched Apollo, Baidu’s new self-driving car platform, from the front seat of a car that was driving itself. According to Wired, Apollo is a set of artificial intelligence-driven tools that includes software, cloud services and self-driving vehicle hardware such as GPS, cameras, LiDAR and radar. More than 70 companies have signed on as partners already. And once Baidu begins to digest the data Apollo collects, Wired says, “the opportunities are limited only by the bounds of its executives’ imaginations.”

Apple and Baidu are just two of the companies competing to make sure their technology is in the car of the future. That competition includes big automotive names, like Mercedes and GM, and lots of tech companies, from big names to startups, including Intel, Nvidia and Comma.ai.

Who then will be the winner of the competition to dominate the industry?

My bet is on the company that is the smartest about capturing, purposing and repurposing the digital data that will be created.

Digital Data for Scientific Discovery

Digital data is enabling amazing discoveries that are expanding our universe. Case in point: NASA just discovered an eighth planet circling a distant star thanks to some artificial intelligence help from Google.

How did they find the planet, now known as Kepler-90i?

NASA reports that researchers trained Google machine learning algorithms to identify exoplanets using 15,000 NASA signals from potential planets in the Kepler Space Telescope database. Then researchers took the trained system and set it to work on the digital data from 670 star systems that were already known to have multiple planets, and voila, a new planet was discovered.

The discovery means we are no longer the largest solar system (that we know about). And who knows what new scientific advances will emerge next from the new wealth of digital data and AI-infused analysis capabilities.

Digital Data for Better Lives

Digital data promises a new model for conducting pharmaceutical clinical trials, one where rich data collected through non-interventional means will be used to better diagnose and treat patients. A recent McKinsey and Co. article titled “Digital in R&D: The $100 Billion Opportunity” explains the challenge:

“R&D is a series of high-risk, high-investment decisions and the [biopharmaceutical] industry is facing a considerable productivity challenge in terms of identifying, testing, and bringing new drugs to market, especially in the context of the highly innovative therapies we seek today.”

The answer to the challenge is applying technologies like artificial intelligence, cloud computing and software as a service to take advantage of digital data and manage it as a strategic asset.

The ability to effectively use diverse digital data sources means patients are better matched to clinical trials, resulting in smaller, shorter and less-expensive trials that generate better insights. And McKinsey says it is not just the digital data itself that will help realize this potential, but rather the ability to ensure that data flows freely “among functions within pharmaceutical companies as well as to partners such as academia and contract research organizations.”

This will mean substantially speeding analysis and value generation, truly improving our health and ultimately our lives.

All About That Digital

Universes and industries alike can indeed be disrupted and change shape based on digital. And digital data will continue to create new models that improve our lives.

I am humbled to consider the digital advances ahead that might be possible, forged from our attempts to organize and make sense of increasingly large amounts of data. Yet I am still going to remember to turn off the digital once in a while and enjoy a good old-fashioned paperback novel.