A Statistical Approach to Futurism

10 September 2011

Saturday


A BBC story, Supercomputer predicts revolution, brought my attention to Kalev H. Leetaru’s paper, Culturnomics 2.0: Forecasting large-scale human behavior using global news media tone in time and space, which describes that is essentially a data-mining effort to predict certain events. While the BBC usually avoids sensationalistic headlines, in this case their sensationalistic “Supercomputer predicts revolution” intuitively captures what the title of the paper itself misses.

In examining the methodology employed in this exercise it is easily to think of all the cases in which such a method would not work, or all the ways in which it could go wrong. But a charitable interpretation is justified at very least on the basis of the potential of this technology. No technology in its first iteration is entirely dependable; usually new technologies are buggy and beset with gremlins. This is only one reason among many that I tend to be skeptical of the hyperbolic claims made by the enthusiasts of the technological singularity, and I’d be happy to give them an earful about this at the Singularity Summit 11 next month, except that I haven’t received an invitation.

Expert systems and data mining have had their own hyperbolic claims made on their behalf, but the unfulfilled promises are less important than the potential of such technology. While computers and the software that runs on them are subject to many of the same ills to which flesh is heir, automation does have certain strong points that can be exploited. But a word on the ills: people tend to think of computers as working on relentlessly despite conditions, and therefore outperforming human beings, but a human body and a computer are both material artifacts, and as such both share in the metaphysical evil that afflicts all beings in the world. If a human being gets too little food, they will begin to make mistakes; if a machine gets too little electricity, it will begin to make mistakes. So nothing sublunary is infallible.

That being said, a human being can, in a moment of great cleverness or brilliance, write a program for a computer which that computer can then go on to apply more consistently and relentlessly than any human beings. At our best, we have insights that do us credit, but human performance is very uneven, and our best moments are few and far between.

I‘m sure that those whose profession involves high-stakes predictions — pragmatic futurists like politicians looking at election returns, traders looking at markets, and military commanders looking at potential conflicts — are paying close attention to these developments, and will be developing their own algorithms for data-mining within their particular fields of endeavor.

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