Microsoft Predicts the Future with New Software
February 4, 2013 11:37 AM
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The software collects information from news article archives and other data sources to predict the future
Using old news articles and a form of Wikipedia, new software is capable of
predicting the future's events
The software, which was developed by both Microsoft and the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, takes a look at archives from
The New York Times
and studies related data on the Internet in order to form predictions about what will happen next in certain parts of the world -- such as disease, violence and a large number of deaths.
The system's sources include
The New York Times'
archives from 1986-2007, DBpedia (the information in Wikipedia constructed using crowdsourcing), WordNet (helps software understand what words mean) and OpenCyc (provides a database of common knowledge).
What the system does is study news reports, then uses outside data for context. For example, the system saw reports of droughts in Angola in 2006. From studying data on the Web, the system knew that droughts can lead to cholera outbreaks in the country. The system further researches the country's location, population density, GDP, whether there was a drought the year before, proportion of land covered by water, etc.
After collecting said information, and studying yet another report from NYT saying that there were large storms in Angola in early 2007, the system predicted the cholera outbreak. Less than one week later, reports of cholera had appeared.
“I truly view this as a foreshadowing of what’s to come,” said Eric Horvitz, codirector at Microsoft Research who led the study with Technion-Israel Institute of Technology's Kira Radinsky. “Eventually this kind of work will start to have an influence on how things go for people.”
When testing the software, Horvitz and Radinsky found that it was correct between 70 and 90 percent of the time. The team said the software could use some extra work in terms of greater accuracy, but once that is complete, it hopes the system can be used to help organizations tackle world problems.
While some predictive tools are already in use, this particular software uses 90 data sources total, making it a more "general purpose" tool.
MIT Technology Review
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It's a stretch to say this is predicting the future.
2/4/2013 1:37:34 PM
This system is merely looking at the results from past events. That's not really a bad thing, since that's probably the most accurate predictor of what's going to happen next.
But there's a fundamental difference between predicting the future and looking at the past and expecting the same thing to happen. If I drop something, I know it's going to fall. That's what gravity does. I didn't use future knowledge to predict the outcome, I used past knowledge to understand how reality works.
Large brokerage firms have tried to use tactics like this to predict stock prices. It would obviously make companies a lot of money if they could predict the future performance of stocks. It turns out that the market is irrational and the future can't be predicted. They do use algorithmic trading to do a bunch of micro transactions but that's different than predicting the future. They're just beating their competition to the punch.
Saying that stormy weather will cause cholera in countries with poor sanitation is like saying that crops will die in the desert if you don't water them. It's not really a prediction, it's common knowledge to those who study the factors at work.
I think a more accurate description would be that it's a data aggregator and modeler.
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