In the series "Visions," science fiction about the very latest research will be paired with analysis looking into the facts behind the fiction. The goal is to marry ripped-from-the-headlines science fiction with analysis into the possibilities hinted at by new discoveries.
This edition of Visions is written by Jesse Emspak, a freelance science writer in New York.
Bill Warren sipped his drink — whiskey, neat — and mentally went over his concession speech. The numbers on the big television weren't going to change. With 80 percent of the districts in he was down 10 points. In his opponent's office they were drinking champagne. Warren preferred whiskey at times like this.
The election coverage dominated the news, but on a couple of computers and TVs there was some footage of the New Bonus Army, named for one that had marched on Washington almost a century before. Warren had known in his gut that he had to get on top of it somehow, especially after the National Guard had accidentally killed that college kid. We never saw this coming.
He felt a tap on the shoulder. It was his campaign manager, Richards. His tie was still straight and his jacket buttoned. He headed up the opposition research team. Warren's own tie was loose, his jacket over the back of a chair.
"Hi Richards. Care for a drink? Even if every remaining county votes our way, I'm out. Steve Preston will be senator, and that's that." He raised his glass slightly. "Gotta respect the guy. His instincts are some of the best I've ever seen."
Richards' expression didn't change. But then again it rarely did. "Yeah, well, this isn't an exit poll. I have something else."
"He could be hiding a goddamned murder conviction and it wouldn't change the results."
"It's our esteemed opponent's spending records." He pointed to the middle of a page.
Warren looked. "He sent a whole lot of money to an analytics firm. So what?" Analytics companies always sprung up like mushrooms around campaign season.
Richards sighed. "Not that part. Look there. See the TV spend, Internet ads? It's all wrong. Nothing like us, and you'd expect that it would be. He raised a similar amount. And there's more. Look there — the equipment spend. Computers. Loads of them — a good double what we put in. And even if we count up what he spent on feeding social media interns coffee and donuts, it doesn't make any sense."
"I've got a concession speech to make in about an hour. Is there something important here?"
"The guy sets up campaign offices in a bunch of key cities. All but one got set up just before that incident with the cops and the protesters by the Capitol building. Before the 'Declaration of Peaceful War' started those marches all over the place. It's like he knew it was coming."
"How would he? Besides, none of what you've said he did is illegal. Savvy, but not illegal."
"Yeah, well, there's another thing. Preston's tax returns. He had a lot of money in a fund that invests overseas. One of the investments — a good half-million in total — is in a certain Saudi energy company. They were going to order solar panels made here, rather than China. Post-oil economy, you know. We were going to have thousands of jobs. Saudi company cancels the order when the monarchy gets overthrown. Look at the trade date. He took the money out a week before the revolution."
Warren pulled out this phone and told it to book him a train ticket.
Preston greeted Warren with a handshake. "Quite a surprise, Bill. You come to give some advice to the freshman senator?"
Warren sat down and rested his tablet bag on his lap. He pulled out a file. Old-school, but the sight of it made Preston shift. "Not much that I can tell you. I can always respect a man who beats me fair and square."
Preston smiled. "And me?"
"Well, that's the thing. I'm coming here because I want to hear what you have to say."
"Look, Steve. You spent little on TV, some on the radio, and hired a ton of interns. But the biggest chunk of your money goes to a firm that does analyses. A firm that turns out to be a bunch of university students. Students with Saudi parents."
"Then the riots happen, and the New Bonus Army is all over the place. Protests everywhere. And your people were out there like you knew where to be beforehand. So maybe you have an ear to the ground; I respect that. But someone told you the Saudi king was finished. Your investment in that fund isn't going to stay buried."
Preston sighed, and put his hands on his desk. "Bill, let me show you something."
He turned his computer around. It showed a map of the U.S. with dots connected by lines that would alternately brighten and dim. Warren had a display just like it, showing the Web traffic and tweets about him and links to his Web sites.
"Bill, I've been in contact with a guy over at the University of Illinois. He did some interesting modeling work years ago. You ever hear of the Open Source Center or the Summary of World Broadcasts? They were set up by the OSS and the Brits way back during World War II to monitor news from all over the world. I used their data — a smaller set, since I only had to worry about the state — and had my analytics team link it to algorithms worked out by them and the UI people. They also tacked on a ton of data from social media sites."
"You knew when the riots would hit? The revolution?"
"Not exactly when. But I knew where and when things were most likely to blow up. I had to buy some supercomputer time, too. But not as much as you'd think. It's power of the people, Warren, and we have the laws that govern it."
"What about the Saudi kids? The investment? "
"Oh, that? I have to admit, Ahmed and his buddies are geniuses. They came up with the model we used and cracked a problem the intelligence agencies have been tackling for a decade, they say. But we have it down, Bill! I can't predict what you will do. But I can predict with 90 percent accuracy what a million of you will. And yeah, I decided taking some money out of there was … prudent."
Bill put the folder back in his bag. "You said the intelligence people had been working on this?"
"Yes. Nobody has published, of course, so there's no way to know if Ahmed re-invented the wheel."
"Look, Steve. I know some people from my days on the Intel committee. They could really use this stuff — "
Preston picked up a phone and held the receiver out. "Make the call, Bill. I'd be happy to serve my country."
Isaac Asimov didn't invent the word 'psychohistory,' but he did repurpose it and make it famous (at least among science fiction aficionados) in his Foundation novels. The idea was to use massive computer power (a machine called the 'Prime Radiant' in the books) combined with data that tracked human behavior and equations that modeled it to predict the future, or at least the part that involved politics. You couldn't use psychohistory on individuals — it only worked with millions of people. (Asimov, who had studied biochemistry, said over the years his model was the laws governing gases).
That vision may be closer to reality now that there is a massive amount of data that was unavailable until the advent of the Internet — Twitter feeds, Facebook postings, search queries, and purchasing decisions all give a macro picture of what people are doing and thinking. The question is how to put that information together.
At the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, Kalev Leetaru recently tried one approach using data from the Open Source Center and Summary of World Broadcasts — both were set up by U.S. and British intelligence agencies to monitor news sources and translate them. Leetaru analyzed the tone of the coverage, classed as positive or negative, to predict periods of unrest, as well as the change in tone over time.
Testing it against Egypt, Tunisia and Saudi Arabia, Leetaru found that while many Middle East experts were saying Hosni Mubarak would ride out the protests, his model showed that he wouldn't. The key was the way the tone of coverage changed — in Mubarak's case it went sharply more negative than before, but in Saudi Arabia it didn't change, though it was still negative. That suggested the Saudi royal family would not likely face massive unrest, despite the dissatisfied population. Leetaru has said he doesn't think it can accurately predict events yet, but it’s clear intelligence agencies have likely spoken to him about it. (He wouldn't say).
Meanwhile, there are other methods under study. The Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Agency, which operates under the Director of National Intelligence, is seeking proposals from academics to predict societal changes. Part of the effort involves using "Big Data" — the sum total of all those electronic footprints people leave in their Internet activity. The Pentagon launched the Minerva Initiative to accomplish similar goals as a method of evaluating future threats.
And it's not all about big, national security issues. The Obama campaign makes powerful use of social media tools, including one called NationalField that connects staffers so they can share information and put campaign resources where they are needed.
Combining a tool such as NationalField with something like Leetaru's work could make elections a much more scientifically run process. One could certainly envision more nefarious uses. Don't like the way an election in some country turned out? A combination of knowing the tone of the news coverage in the country and some good predictive tools would mean one could decide where to send provocateurs, how to target political ads or which parties to fund.
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