SUPERCOMPUTER PREDICTS CIVIL UNREST
by Jesse Emspak
Thu Sep 8, 2011
In Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, the future of masses of people can be predicted with “psychohistory,” a method of predicting future poitical and social trends, using a device called the “Prime Radiant.” In the 1950s, there wasn’t the math or the computational power available to make such a thing reality. Now there might be.
Supercomputers, such as the Nautilus at the University of Tennessee’s Center for Data Analysis and Visualization, may have brought the world closer to Asimov’s vision, though it is still early days. The key is seeking paterns in massive amounts of data and being able to visualize them. Kaley Leetaru, assistant director for text and digital media analytics at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, did just that.
BLOG: The Pursuit of Intelligence In Computer Science
Leetaru used a database of 100 million news articles spanning the period from 1979 to early 2011. The data is from the Open Source Center and Summary of World Broadcasts, both set up by the U.S. and British intelligence agencies to monitor what amounts to nearly every news source in the world, and translate them into nuanced English. By analyzing the text in the news stories and the tone — whether they were largely positive or negative — Leetaru found that patterns emerged that seem to line up with major periods of unrest. For example, in Egypt, the tone of news articles about Mubarak grew increasingly negative as the protests grew, until eventually Mubarak resigned.
t isn’t just the tone, howvever — it’s also the change in tone over time. Saudia Arabia’s government has remained in power, becuase the tone of the news there has been equally negative before, whereas Tunisia and Egypt hit new lows. Leetaru notes that many of the country experts on Egypt said Mubarak would likely ride it out, as he had done before.
Another pattern the supercomputer was able to tease out that Osama bin Laden was in Pakistan, by checking how often his name was recorded in association with the country. Visualized as lines on a map (pictured) connecting the cities mentioned in stories that also reference bin Laden, a pattern emerges that centers on northern Pakistan — within a couple of hundred miles of Islamabad.