Everything in computers needs storage – blogs, instant messaging, social networks and personal documents, all residing on our own computers or someone else’s, eg Gmail in the case of emails. As the amount of data available increases, so do storage needs and units of measurement.
Storage units on computers start with bytes (or 8 bits). A little over a thousand bytes (i.e. 1024 bytes) comprises a kilobyte (KB), a 1024 KB comprises a megabyte (MB) and 1024 MB comprises a gigabyte (GB), which is the most common storage unit today. This multiplication of 1024 defines Terabyte and then Petabyte.
Petabyte is considered a milestone in the scientific approach – to the extent that it is sometimes referred to as the Petabyte Age. What sets this vast amount of data apart from previously available limited data is the prediction that in the Petabye era, scientific researchers no longer need to create hypotheses and models and then test whether their hypothesis and model are correct or not.
For example, instead of assuming that a particular age group is more sensitive to health risks, or that a particular geographic area is likely to be affected by riots or political uncertainty for some reason, and test this against some data, it could be advanced data mining . used. Such mining of petabytes of data would make it possible to handle a virtually unlimited influx of information, such as scanning news items around the world to pinpoint problem areas, along with trends and problems of ‘major importance or seriousness’ without the need to find out the underlying causes. This kind of ‘geo-tagging’ has already started in the form of projects such as Google Zeitgeist and Europe Media Monitor – EMM. Therefore, in the Petabyte era, ancient scientific methods of hypothesis, model, and test are about to be replaced by what vast amounts of data tell us. In short, inferences based on huge data collected around the world would not require models of their explanation as numbers would speak for themselves. For e.g. rapid monitoring of epidemics, forecasting of wars, voting patterns, etc. In his article entitled “The end of theory,” Chris Anderson, editor-in-chief of Wired, writes, “Science can advance even without coherent models, unified theories, or actually any mechanistic explanation.” More radical views have even cited Petabyte Age as End of Science, while others have dismissed it as too futuristic.
Terminologies have already been defined outside of Petabyte – this includes Exabyte, Zettabyte, Yottabyte, and Brontobyte, where each starting at Petabyte is multiplied by 1024 to arrive at the following terminology. But only time will tell whether Petabyte Age, with the ability to process innumerable data points and gather information from myriad sources and sensors using processing clouds, would change science or not.