"The fuel of science is data," he says. "We have so much more of that rocket fuel."
So far, public attention has focused on the potential threats to privacy as companies use technology to gather clues about their customers' buying habits and lifestyles.
"What is less visible," says software entrepreneur Martin Ford, "is that organizations are collecting huge amounts of data about their internal operations and about what their employees are doing." The computers can use that information to "figure out how to do a great many jobs" that humans do now.
Gary Mintchell, editor in chief of Automation World, recalls starting work in manufacturing years ago as a "grunge, white-collar worker." He'd walk around the factory floor with a clipboard, recording information from machines, then go back to an office and enter the data by hand onto a spreadsheet.
Now that grunge work is conducted by powerful "operations management" software systems developed by businesses such as General Electric Intelligent Platforms in Charlottesville, Va. These systems continuously collect, analyze and summarize in digestible form information about all aspects of factory operations â¿¿energy consumption, labor costs, quality problems, customer orders.
And the guys wandering the factory floor with clipboards? They're gone.
In the old days â¿¿ say, five years ago â¿¿ businesses that had to track lots of information needed to install servers in their offices and hire technical staff to run them. "Cloud computing" has changed everything.
Now, companies can store information on the Internet â¿¿ perhaps through Amazon Web Services or Google App Engine â¿¿ and grab it when they need it. And they don't need to hire experts to do it.
Cloud computing "is a catch-all term for the ability to rent as much computer power as you need without having to buy it, without having to know a lot about it," McAfee says. "It really has opened up very high-powered computing to the masses."