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Looking Ahead

How much does predictive software affect people’s lives?
September 25, 2008

Based on surveys we took in the predictive software panel I moderated this afternoon at the EmTech conference, most of the people in the audience didn’t particularly think predictive software affects their lives at the moment.

Predictive software systems take advantage of the vast quantities of data being collected at all times in the modern world, finding ways to mine those databases and analyze them for trends. The results can be applied to a broad variety of areas.

Craig Chapman, CTO of Inrix, described how his company can predict traffic congestion for 15-minute windows up to a year into the future. Though, of course, the quality of the predictions depend on available data, Chapman said even the company’s poorest-quality predictions, which don’t take into account important factors such as weather, are still 75 percent accurate. Claudia Perlich, a research staff member at the IBM Watson Research Center, showed how predictive software can be used for applications ranging from breast cancer diagnosis to debt and tax collection. Eric Bonabeau, CEO of Icosystem, showed how it might predict human behavior.

Predictive software may not be an obtrusive presence in my life, but it certainly affects it. Beyond the obvious online recommendations systems that use it, such as Amazon.com and Netflix, and my infinite Netflix queue and Amazon wish list that result, I’m dead sure that predictive software is being used to guess my behavior–as a consumer, as a voter, or as a set of eyeballs viewing Web pages. I may not feel the direct effects of that, but I suspect the indirect effects are vast. It may seem that my Netflix queue isn’t all that significant, aside from its economic value to Netflix, but I think that the uses businesses and organizations make of predictive software could be very much so. Microsoft Research’s Eric Horvitz, who also spoke on the panel, also sees vast potential for future uses, including the ability to search for correlations, such as what sorts of factors in a person’s life tend to lead to crime. That may open the way for better-targeted social programs, as one example.

I’d be curious to know how readers of this blog would answer a couple of the questions we posed to the audience. Have predictive technologies affected your life in a significant way? What role will predictive technologies play in the future? (This question was multiple choice, with possible answers being: A. They will play a critical role; B. They will be one of several computational tools; and C. They won’t play an important role)

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