Psychohistory in the real world

Tom James @ 28-07-2009

crowdResearchers at Indiana University believe that it may be possible to create a real-life version of Isaac Asimov’s concept of psychohistory:

Much as meteorologists predict the path and intensity of hurricanes, Indiana University’s Alessandro Vespignani believes we will one day predict with unprecedented foresight, specificity and scale such things as the economic and social effects of billions of new Internet users in China and India, or the exact location and number of airline flights to cancel around the world in order to halt the spread of a pandemic.

Psychohistory as described by Isaac Asimov holds that “while one cannot foresee the actions of a particular individual, the laws of statistics as applied to large groups of people could predict the general flow of future events.”

This certainly seems similar to the ideas of reality mining discussed here:

Vespignani writes that advances in complex networks theory and modeling, along with access to new data, will enable humans to achieve true predictive power in areas never before imagined. This capability will be realized as the one wild card in the mix — the social behavior of large aggregates of humans — becomes more definable through progress in data gathering, new informatics tools and increases in computational power.

It is an exciting direction, and offers the possibility of a black-swan style technological breakthrough. With improved data, through things like spimes and ubiquitous computing, combined with improved data processing techniques and communications there exists the possibility for a new and powerful way of studying, monitoring, and even controlling social and technological developments with precision.

[via Next Big Future][image from woodleywonderworks on flickr]


Cellphone epidemiology- Japan’s swine flu panopticon

Paul Raven @ 22-05-2009

mother, child and cellphoneIn response to the swine flu almost-epidemic, my government thoughtfully sent me a leaflet, advising me to steer clear of people sneezing and so on. The Japanese Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, however, appears to be approaching the problem from a more technological angle; this autumn, they’ll test a system that uses mobile phones to track the locations of citizens and inform them whether they’ve been in contact with a flu carrier:

The proposed system relies on mobile phone providers to constantly track the subjects’ geographical locations and keep chronological records of their movements in a database. When a person is labeled as “infected,” all the past location data in the database is analyzed to determine whether or not anyone came within close proximity to the infected individual.

The system will know, for example, whether or not you once boarded the same train or sat in the same movie theater as the infected individual, and it will send you a text message containing the details of the close encounter. The text messages will also provide instructions on specific measures to take in response.

The primary purpose of the test, which will involve about 2,000 volunteers in both urban and rural areas, is to verify the precision of GPS tracking technology, estimate the potential costs of operating such a system, and determine whether or not such a system can be put into practical use.

The first problem that leaps to mind here is that just one or two undiagnosed flu carriers loose in your city is going to throw a spanner in the works; those few errors will multiply exponentially over time.

Secondly – and channelling my tin-foil hat-wearing younger self for a moment – what a fantastically comprehensive way to monitor and control your population, should you decide you need (or want) to, and what a great excuse to coat the pill with. There’s a polical-dystopian technothriller just waiting to be written right there; just replace the word ‘infected’ with ‘subversive’ in the above quotes, and off you go. [via Technovelgy; image by kalandrakas]