Could it be that an Israeli university, along with one of the world’s biggest multinational corporations, has succeeded where the likes of Nostradamus have failed?
A joint project by the Technion, Israel’s Institute of Technology and Microsoft, was able to use massive data analysis to predict phenomena such as global plagues, environmental disasters and violent uprisings, with up to 90 percent accuracy. The impressive results were achieved when the system was used to predict historical events, using earlier data.
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The Technion’s Kira Radinsky and Microsoft’s Eric Horvitz constructed a program which collects data spanning a 22-year period, from 1986 to 2007, from sources like the New York Times and other online publications. It then analyzes this data usings DBPedia, a resource which uses Wikipedia to add layers of information; WordNet, a tool to analyze the meaning of words; and OpenCyc, a general knowledge database.
All this information adds valuable context that is not available in news articles. This added information is necessary to figure out general rules for what events precede other, bigger events, the researchers said.
For example, the system could infer connections between events in Rwanda and Angola based on the fact that they are both in Africa, have similar GDPs etc. That approach led the software to conclude that, in predicting cholera outbreaks, it should consider a country or city’s location, portion of land covered by water, population density, GDP, and whether there had been a drought the year before, the researchers explained.
“I truly view this as a foreshadowing of what’s to come,” Horvitz told the MIT Technology Review.
In other occurrences, Radinsky and Horvitz’s program was able to predict violent uprisings, disease and events with high death tolls with an accuracy rate of 70 to 90 percent. This recent study is the most extensive of its kind, using a total of more than 90 sources.
Helping aid organizations prepare for disaster
Despite the need for further verification, the research team is certain they have a powerful tool in their hands. The program could benefit aid organizations in preparing for events ahead of time and responding faster to crises, says Horvitz. “We’ve done some reaching out and plan to do some follow-up work with such people.”
“Eventually this kind of work will start to have an influence on how things go for people,” Horvitz concluded.
Horovitz and Radinsky want to continue testing their system by analyzing more news archives, as well as digitized books. So far, Microsoft does not have plans to commercialize their research, Horovitz said, but the research is ongoing.
Photo by Daniel Conway