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Coin of the Realm

Your brain is a greedy little fellow. Although it comprises only 2% of your body weight, it consumes 20% of the oxygen supply. Deprived of oxygen for a mere one minute, it’s cells will begin to die off and two minutes later, serious permanent damage will have occurred. Oxygen is number one on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs – love, esteem and self-actualization all build on a foundation that starts with oxygen. It’s one of those essential things that we take for granted, until it’s at risk.

Scientists say that the typical adult human brain uses about 12 watts of power, obtained from combining that oxygen with glucose. This is a lot in relation to the rest of the body, but efficient compared with a 60-watt light bulb, and mind-bogglingly miserly next to IBM’s Watson, which requires around 750,000 watts. The brain’s energy budgeting prioritizes things we focus on and diverts its energy resources accordingly.

The actual workload of your brain can be divided into two main tasks – the inward facing job of maintaining your bodily systems, and the outward facing one of gathering and processing information about the world around you. We survive and flourish based on what information we gather, and what we do with that information. Modern technologies – Artificial Intelligence, Deep Learning, Machine Learning, and more or less everything else – are also driven by data. It is the starting point for countless innovations.

On average, individual humans create 1.7 MB of data every second. Our technologies create a lot more – we are surrounded by an ever-increasing sea of data. While there are only a few gigabytes worth of neurons in your brain, they work together in various ways to produce an estimated storage capacity of around 2.5 petabytes. Meanwhile, in a few short years, the total data repository around the globe is expected to reach 175 zettabytes.

As we move up Maslow’s hierarchy we eventually encounter less urgent things like food and shelter. Hunting, foraging, and building are all-consuming jobs, and some form of specialization and exchange makes a lot of sense. It also frees up time for the less tangible Maslowian needs revolving around self-actualization.

In the beginning, the exchange of choice was barter, still preferred by individuals and organizations as a way of trading goods and services. From cows to cowries to coins – and eventually to paper money – humans have used various means to exchange what they have for what they need.

While physical tokens still exist, digital cash in the form of electronic transactions - e.g. PayPal, Venmo, Automated Clearing House (ACH) – now dominate our monetary system. The connection to actual palpable money is blurred even further by the rise of Bitcoin.

Online search engines like Google and social media outlets like Facebook have increasingly come under scrutiny because of how they handle knowledge of our data gathering habits or our personal interests. These services were once naively believed to be free, although they exchanged the information they gathered about us with their customers for just over a quarter of a trillion dollars in combined 2020 annual revenue.

In 18th century England, the phrase “coin of the realm” was used synonymously with “legal tender”. The words “coin” and “realm” have since taken on more abstract meanings, and one might say, for example that “trust is the coin of the realm.”

The latest turn on the phrase is inevitable - data is the new coin of the realm.

Author Profile - Paul W. Smith - leader, educator, technologist, writer - has a lifelong interest in the countless ways that technology changes the course of our journey through life. In addition to being a regular contributor to NetworkDataPedia, he maintains the website Technology for the Journey and occasionally writes for Blogcritics. Paul has over 40 years of experience in research and advanced development for companies ranging from small startups to industry leaders. His other passion is teaching - he is a former Adjunct Professor of Mechanical Engineering at the Colorado School of Mines. Paul holds a doctorate in Applied Mechanics from the California Institute of Technology, as well as Bachelor’s and Master’s Degrees in Mechanical Engineering from the University of California, Santa Barbara.


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