I am a pediatric cardiologist and have cared for children with heart disease for the past three decades. In addition, I have an educational background in business and finance as well as healthcare administration and global health – I gained a Masters Degree in Public Health from UCLA and taught Global Health there after I completed the program.
“Information is the lifeblood of medicine and health information technology is destined to be the circulatory system for that information.”
David Blumenthal, President, The Commonwealth Fund
Caleb Scharf, an award-winning author and director of the multidisciplinary Columbia Astrobiology Center, as well as a frequent contributor to The New York Times, combines computer science, information theory, neurosciences, evolutionary biology, and even astrobiology to focus on the entity of information.
We create 2.5 quintillion bytes of data every day, and yet probably do not ask frequently enough, “why?”. Information and data are not interchangeable concepts: data is unorganized and unrefine,d whereas information is processed and presented in a meaningful context. In short, data does not depend on information but information depends on data. We humans are unique in that we externalize information that is encoded in our DNA.
Scharf argues very effectively that information is a growing, living organism and that it is in symbiosis with us. This human-information synergy is a relatively new and shocking concept, as he suggests that the dataome (defined as the sum total of our nongenetic information) is an alternate living system. He further delineates his portfolio of provocative ideas, and does so in a very enlightening and entertaining way without excessive technical jargon. The broad range of topics covers John von Neumann and Alan Turing, information theory, generative adversarial networks, holobiont (defined as an assemblage of a host and other species surrounding), and a myriad of others in the realm of biology and mathematics as well as artificial intelligence. Of note, the chapter named “In Sickness and in Health” is not particularly focused on healthcare but still worth reading for its content on entropy and other historical aspects of data and information. In addition, his description of how data will consume energy and maintain life as a Darwinian organism is perhaps too far a stretch and a distraction for some of the readers.
The only major criticism I have for this book is a relative lack of cohesion and direction for some of the meandering discussions on the various diverse topics. The book tends at times to read like a series of blogs with good to excellent content, but without an overarching central structure or a strong conclusion with a meaningful message. This flaw is totally forgiven with the excellent content on information by an extraordinary author who is one of the most innovative and impactful thinkers on data and information in our generation.