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  • Dr Seldon, I presume

    The Economist - 02/23/2013

    “FOUNDATION”, a novel by Isaac Asimov from the golden age of science fiction, imagines a science called psychohistory which enables its practitioners to predict precisely the behaviour of large groups of people. The inventor of psychohistory, Hari Seldon, uses his discovery to save humanity from an historical dark age.

    A fantasy, of course. But the rise of mobile phones and social networks means budding psychohistorians do now have an enormous amount of data that they can search for information which might yield more modest patterns of predictability. And, as several of them told the AAAS meeting, they are doing just that.

    Song Chaoming, for instance, is a researcher at Northeastern University in Boston. He is a physicist, but he moonlights as a social scientist. With that hat on he has devised an algorithm which can look at someone’s mobile-phone records and predict with an average of 93% accuracy where that person is at any moment of any day. Given most people’s regular habits (sleep, commute, work, commute, sleep), this might not seem too hard. What is impressive is that his accuracy was never lower than 80% for any of the 50,000 people he looked at.

     

    Alessandro Vespignani, one of Dr Song’s colleagues at Northeastern, discussed what might be done with such knowledge. Dr Vespignani, another moonlighting physicist, studies epidemiology. He and his team have created a program called GLEAM (Global Epidemic and Mobility Model) that divides the world into hundreds of thousands of squares. It models travel patterns between these squares (busy roads, flight paths and so on) using equations based on data as various as international air links and school holidays.