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BusinessDay: Welcome to the Zettabyte Era

In the Smart Technology era, clients are expecting better service from their providers.

By Johan Steyn, 13 July 2021

We were waiting for the arrival with great anticipation. Once the courier handed over the package we rushed back to the warehouse, eager to lay our hands on it. I started my career building personal computers and managing the logistics for a computer distributor. Back then, the standard-size hard drives we installed in computers was 20MB (megabytes). But that day, based on a unique client order (and at great expense) we opened a box to the future. In my hands was a 1GB (gigabyte) hard drive. It was big and heavy and the crowd around us almost bowed in reverence.

That evening I had to send a picture of this alien technology to a friend. I connected my digital camera to my computer, uploaded the picture, and waited patiently for my dial-up modem to connect. The file size was 2MB and I waited several minutes for the data to upload before the email was sent.

Young people today may imagine that my story was from the time when Thomas Edison worked on electricity generation, but it was a mere 20 years ago. Back then large amounts of data were produced by large businesses such as banks and telcos, but these days we all produce vast amounts of data. Just think of all your social media interactions, the pictures you upload to various platforms, your geospatial data (exactly when and where you have been).

A few years ago Cisco announced we have entered the Zettabyte Era, based on the amount of internet traffic we generate on an annual basis. Remember the 1GB hard drive? Put a trillion of those next to each other and you will get a zettabyte, which is 2 to the 70th power bytes, or 1 sextillion bytes.

What are the factors that contribute to this incredible amount of data we are generating? Technology is always on the road to becoming smaller, cheaper and more powerful. The computing power in the average smartphone was almost beyond imagination just a few years ago. We live in a world of increasing wireless and mobile traffic, broadband speeds, and video streaming.

We often hear the term “big data” which refers to data that is so large, fast, or complicated that processing it using traditional methods is difficult or impossible. Imagine a company with a million customers who interact with it daily to procure products or services. Imagine the amount of data generated by those transactions.

A good example is mobile network providers with millions of customers. Your bank may have fairly up-to-date data on you, such as your purchase history over the past week. But your mobile provider knows exactly where you are at any time (given that your phone is on and accessing their network), how much data you use and which applications you access.

Not all organisations have such large transaction volumes from a vast amount of clients. However, in the smart technology era, it is possible for all organisations to use technology such as AI or the so-called internet of things to gain real-time data on their clients.

In the past, companies would use client data retrospectively. They would use executive dashboards on recent historical transactions to plan for the future. These days it is possible to use machine learning models to predict the needs of clients instantly. We can use computational social science to solve human behavioural prediction challenges.

Smart technology is good news, it can take your company’s performance to new heights. But your clients are getting smarter and they are getting used to better service levels from your competitors. Your clients lack patience and want to interact with your business instantly, in a manner of their choosing.

As much as smart technology can empower businesses, it is empowering your clients even more. They are expecting you to use all the data which you have been harvesting to offer them better products, services and better instantaneous experiences.

Johan Steyn is chair of the Special Interest Group on Artificial Intelligence and Robotics with the Institute of Information Technology Professionals of SA. He writes in his personal capacity.


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