Has Isaac Asimov's Foundation trilogy science finally come true?

Contributed by
Dec 15, 2012

Sci-fi has predicted reality before (think Star Trek's communicators and The Prisoner's ubiquitious surveillance). But now there's a science fiction concept that we never thought we'd see in real life: psychohistory.

Psychohistory is a concept found in Isaac Asimov's epic series Foundation—which beat out Lord of the Rings in 1965 for the Hugo award for best all-time series—about using sociology, history and statistics to predict the future of large groups.

Now the BBC reports that "Feeding a supercomputer with news stories could help predict major world events."

Could it help? Actually, it already has. Believe it or not, a computer predicted the revolutions in Libya and Egypt, as well as the approximate location of Osama bin Laden.

Kalev Leetaru, senior research scientist of the University of Illinois' Institute for Computing in the Humanities, Arts and Social Science, first had to gather more than 100 million articles and feed them into an SGI Altix supercomputer. "The machine's 1024 Intel Nehalem cores have a total processing power of 8.2 teraflops (trillion floating point operations per second)," the BBC writes.

According to the BBC:

Mood detection, or "automated sentiment mining" searched for words such as "terrible", "horrific" or "nice".

Location, or "geocoding" took mentions of specific places, such as "Cairo" and converted them in to coordinates that could be plotted on a map....

Based on specific queries, Nautilus generated graphs for different countries which experienced the "Arab Spring".

In each case, the aggregated results of thousands of news stories showed a notable dip in sentiment ahead of time - both inside the country, and as reported from outside.

And as for bin Laden:

While many believed the al-Qaeda leader to be hiding in Afghanistan, geographic information extracted from media reports consistently identified him with Northern Pakistan.

Only one report mentioned the town of Abbottabad prior to Bin Laden's discovery by US forces in April 2011.

However, the geo-analysis narrowed him down to within 200km, said Mr Leetaru.

Leetaru told the BBC that his prediction system works better than the one the U.S. government was working with. He is currently working on fine-tuning his analysis, particularly when it comes to geographic location and individual groups.

In the first book of the Foundation series, psychohistorian Hari Seldon predicts the galaxy-wide collapse of civilization. Knowing that this event—which will lead to 30,000 years of barbarism—cannot be averted, Seldon seeks to reduce the collapse to a mere 1,000 years.

Whether or not Leetaru will manipulate events for the benefit of civilization, or even to predict the rise and fall of his stocks and bonds, remains to be seen.

But he'll probably be the first to see it.

(via BadassDigest)

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