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Data is the new coal

We're in danger of overdoing it when it comes to digital analogies but sometimes they can be really useful in framing something in an instructive way. The 'data is the new oil' metaphor has been doing the rounds now for a number of years, but one of my favourite Firestarters quotes came from Graeme Wood who made the point at Firestarters Sydney that data is the new oil because it's toxic unless you refine it. And then there's this analogy (from Amazon’s Neil Lawrence's talk at the Re-work conference on deep learning) on how data is actually like the new coal – not coal today, but coal as it was in the early days of the 18th century:

'…Thomas Newcomen invented the steam engine. A Devonian ironmonger, Newcomen built his device to pump water out of the south west’s prolific tin mines. The problem…was that the pump was rather more useful to those who had a lot of coal than those who didn’t: it was good, but not good enough to buy coal in to run it. That was so true that the first of Newcomen’s steam engines wasn’t built in a tin mine, but in coal works near Dudley.'

Lawrence's point is of-course that innovations are far more useful to those who have copious amounts of raw material to work from. In light of all the AI announcements we're seeing this is, of-course, a prescient observation.

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