Higher education needs to be radically reformed, self-driving cars are the wave of the future and sustainable energy is going to rely on smart networks moving forward.

That's all according to a top executive at the sixth-largest software company in the world who spoke at the University of Montana on Monday about how big data is transforming society.

Peter Coffee, vice president for strategic research at Salesforce, a company that Forbes dubbed the world's most innovative for four years in a row, delivered a presentation called “Big Data Goes to Work: Liberating Latent Value in a Connected World” to an audience at the Gallagher Business Building, followed by a reception at the Davidson Honors College.

In a wide-ranging, entertaining and fast-paced lecture, Coffee spoke about how even the most underdeveloped parts of the world are undergoing massive upheaval because of big data.

“We’re bringing people cat videos way faster than we’re bringing them clean water,” he said.

Coffee said successful companies focus on making more customers need them rather than making existing customers love them more. And very successful companies can predict the future by using big data.

“We know how many 10-year-olds there are in India today, so we can know how many new entrants to the labor force they will have 10 years from now,” he explained. “We know how many 60-year-olds there are in the U.S. today so we know how many 70-year-olds will be needing medical care of a more advanced kind 10 years from now. We know that the dependency ratios of the elderly to the productive worker in every developing economy are reaching new levels.”

Coffee said autonomous cars will be in high demand as the population ages because people will want to have control over their ability to move around even if they are too old to drive. He also said in-home, health-detecting technology will also allow people to avoid unnecessary trips to the doctor’s office for checkups.

“We need new enabling technology,” he said. “I shouldn’t have needed to get into the office to find out everything is fine.”

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The number of people employed full time by a single employer is plummeting downward, according to Coffee.

“The notion that you need to hire someone full time even if they’re only busy a third of the time is quickly falling apart,” he said.

Coffee said the value of data in the health care industry could be worth as much as $300 billion a year. However, many people mistakenly believe that "magnitude" is the most important thing when it comes to large amounts of data.

“It’s easy to be impressed by magnitude, but you don’t want to let big data be dumb data,” he explained. “Big data is not just for the nerds and geeks. Big data is a perception – a way of thinking about the world that everybody is going to need to have. Everyone is going to have to develop skills around this.”

Coffee also said the higher education system needs reform.

"A formal study of software engineering journals came to the conclusion that you need to study 7.5 hours a week for 48 weeks a year from the moment you get your degree if you want to remain as current over time as you are now," he said.

That leads to two implications, Coffee said. The first is that if you are not reading material based for your field, you are falling behind. The second is that the higher education model of "selling you a diploma like it's a house" is crazy.

"There needs to be a model where you subscribe to a channel of continuing skills refreshment," he said. "And then you have universities coming to you and rattling the tin cup and hoping that you remember homecoming weekend and give them some money out of the goodness of your heart. I'm sorry, we need to come to the point where you're paying for a continuing stream of value. It's a radically new way of thinking about what education is going to be."

The event was part of UM’s Mathematical Sciences Colloquium, organized by math professor Leonid Kalachev, which is focusing on the ways data helps businesses document past behaviors, seek opportunities and build predictive tools that have the power to change behaviors and create new value.

Coffee and Kalachev, along with math professor Brian Steele, began having conversations more than a year ago. UM has established numerous interdisciplinary programs related to big data, including computer science, marketing and management information systems. The reception was sponsored by Advanced Technology Group in Missoula.

“The University of Montana has been a key component to ATG’s dramatic growth over the past few years, and much of our work is within the Salesforce ecosystem,” ATG Vice President Tom Stergios said. “We are excited to hear what will come out of the collaboration between Salesforce and the University of Montana.”

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