Is Data the New Oil?

Rob Enderle

Intel CEO Brian Krzanich recently made the controversial statement that data is the new oil. The implication is that data is trending and gaining in power. However, I’d argue that data has always had the potential to be more powerful than oil and that what is changing isn’t its value but our ability to make use of it. Regardless of how you approach this argument, Intel is in a good position to benefit from this change, but likely needs to play an even bigger role to assure its survival, and ours.

Let’s chat about that this week because I don’t think we talk about the downside of data enough to prevent it.

Oil vs. Data: The Differences

Oil is a limited resource; it forms the basis for a lot of the doom and gloom predictions for the future, either causing global warming and killing off the race or becoming scarce, resulting in a Mad Max kind of wasteland where owning it is the difference between life and death. It is made up of the organic material of the creatures that came thousands of years before us and we probably should have left it buried and considered other forms of energy from the start as it currently forms a rather impressive economic barrier between us and any cleaner, renewable, alternative because it is cheap. Oil has value even if it isn’t refined, but refining increases its energy yield and, potentially, reduces the environmental damage it does.

We have always had more data than we could reasonably make use of and, alone, it is virtually worthless. It is only when it is refined through analysis that it becomes valuable. Then, depending on the outcome, it can become a great asset or a massive liability. On the asset side, it can be used as a tool to lengthen lives, increase happiness, and assure the proliferation of the race. On the liability side, it can be used to start wars, develop weapons of mass destruction, and perhaps eventually lead to the destruction of the planet. The recent U.S. election wasn’t decided on votes but on the data that the votes represent, and there remains a relatively high probability that some percentage of that data was false due largely to the poor security surrounding the voting process and state-level attacks.

Data vs. Oil: The Similarities

Neither data nor oil is inherently good or bad. They just are. Their evolution into something that does harm or good mostly has to do with what we do with them. As a lubricant or even the source of heat, as it existed before the industrial revolution, oil largely had no downside. It wasn’t until oil was shifted to mass use for industrial power and shortages started wars that it became more of a problem than an asset.

Data initially was mostly used formally to track accounts and commerce. Yes, it was also used for intelligence, but largely so one army or firm could outperform another, and mostly focused on things that could be quantified because counting was easy. As with oil, whether it is used for harm or good has to do with what we do with it. For instance, the data on WMDs out of Iraq could have been used to prevent a war and the destabilization of the Middle East, but it was misused and it helped cause a war expensive in lives, money and influence.

Of the two, data has been and will always be the more powerful because it is a greater force multiplier. Yes, refined oil powers most of the major weapons manufacturing and delivery systems in the world, but data tells us where to place them, and wars have always been won or lost more by placement than by quantity of weapons. In the recent U.S. presidential election, Hillary Clinton was massively better provisioned than Donald Trump, yet his better placement in the last 10 days resulted in an upset win, showcasing the power of data that I think most still don’t get.


Sadly, we often focus more on the amount of data rather than the accuracy of it, and I still don’t think that bodes well for our future.

Wrapping Up: Intel’s Role with Data

Intel is the leading core technology company behind analysis, basically data refining; its products are at the heart of turning data into the information that has and will change the world. But like a weapons dealer, it currently doesn’t have much say over how the information is used. Data acquisition, bias, or pre- or post- data corruption are all things outside of Intel’s control at the moment. Yet these are the elements that will likely define whether we mostly benefit or are mostly harmed by this next industrial revolution. Andy Grove was a big believer in assuring a positive outcome and after he left Intel worked tirelessly to try to convince politicians to do the right thing. Sadly, and generally, he failed, but I wonder whether tech firms like Intel will take up his sword and shield to continue his battle. Krzanich may, as he has shown an interest in the bigger picture.

Intel is at the heart of the artificial intelligence (AI) revolution; it could be instrumental in assuring that we survive and flourish as a result of it, rather than get squished by it. Let’s hope this firm, and its peers, take the right path.

In the end, data isn’t the new oil. It has always been, and always will be, vastly more powerful. However, even more than oil, the quality of our lives may depend on what we do with it.

Rob Enderle is President and Principal Analyst of the Enderle Group, a forward-looking emerging technology advisory firm.  With over 30 years’ experience in emerging technologies, he has provided regional and global companies with guidance in how to better target customer needs; create new business opportunities; anticipate technology changes; select vendors and products; and present their products in the best possible light. Rob covers the technology industry broadly. Before founding the Enderle Group, Rob was the Senior Research Fellow for Forrester Research and the Giga Information Group, and held senior positions at IBM and ROLM. Follow Rob on Twitter @enderle, on Facebook and on Google+


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