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]


Forecasting the future

Jeremy Eades @ 26-02-2008

I’ve mentioned this lecture series before, but the Long Now Foundation had two recent lecturers, Paul Saffo and Nassim Nicholas Taleb, give us their takes on forecasting future trends.

Paul Saffo gives us his rules for forecasting, starting off with a great description of the “cone of uncertainty” that is involved in any sort of forecasting.  He goes on to discuss how humans get the future so wrong – among them are the linear expectations we have, whereas change isn’t linear, but instead moves in more of an “S” curve.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb gave a very humorous talk on how change happens.  He’s got a book out called “The Black Swan,” a book I’ve ordered and look forward to reading.  The title comes from the old European idea that swans were only white, therefore things that were impossible were “as likely as a black swan,” this phrase being enshrined in Shakespearean dialogue, among others.  Until people got to Australia.  They’ve got black swans.

Taleb’s talk focused on the human bias in forecasting – how we use data solely taken from survivors and success stories.  Everyone wants to hear how so-and-so made millions in the dot-com boom-and-you-can-too, but no one wants to hear how my Uncle Ernie lost a million bucks.  Especially if you’re interested in his descriptions of the psychology involved, “Mediocristan” and “Extremistan” are fascinating topics.

Give the blogs a read, and there are certainly worse ways you can spend a couple hours than by listening to the podcasts on the way to work (

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and

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).

(image via flickr user kamoda)