Could Computers Predict Political Unrest Like They Predict The Weather?

from the doubtful dept

Via betajames, we learn of some research being done on a computer system that’s trying to predict political unrest by looking at press coverage.

In a recently published paper, Culturomics 2.0: Forecasting Large-scale Human Behavior Using Global News Media Tone in Time and Space, [Kalev Leetaru] shows that by feeding millions of news articles from around the world into an SGI supercomputer, you can analyze the tone of media coverage and pinpoint moments of unrest: a revolution, riots, or even when a despotic ruler will relinquish power and flee his country.

Of course, so far, the system has only been used on past events, and as it says on the box: past results are no guarantee on future performance. Separately, looking at the examples in the article, it sounds like it notices stuff… well… about the same time a human paying attention would notice stuff. It talks about how right before Pearl Harbor the Japanese press dropped all talk of peace and ramped up criticism of the US. It also discusses Mubarak leaving office and how the press turned really negative right before that. But it wasn’t like you needed a computer to tell you that the protests were having an impact and likely leading to the end of Mubarak’s reign.

The project sounds interesting, but it seems like Leetaru is overly optimistic about what it’ll show. Until there’s evidence of it picking out things that you couldn’t pick out yourself just by reading the news, I’m not sure there’s really any breakthrough.

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Comments on “Could Computers Predict Political Unrest Like They Predict The Weather?”

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EveningStarNM (profile) says:

It's not like it takes any intelligence

Anyone who can read the unemployment rate or compare average incomes in percentiles can predict political unrest. It might be a little bit harder to pin down when people will rebel against a dictator, but sudden changes in economic conditions that increase poverty ALWAYS precede political unrest. It was true in Tunisia, it was true in Egypt, it was true in Greece, it was true in the rest of Europe, and it’s true here in the U.S.

But perhaps the morons in the U.S. government need a computer to tell them what everybody else already knows: THEY’RE DOING IT WRONG.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: It's not like it takes any intelligence

“Could Computers Predict Political Unrest Like They Predict The Weather?”

Probably. Computers don’t seem to do that good a job at predicting the weather, I don’t imagine they can do much worse at predicting political unrest.

“Anyone who can read the unemployment rate or compare average incomes in percentiles can predict political unrest.”

Sounds like a better political unrest indicator than what we currently have to predict the weather.

EveningStarNM (profile) says:

Re: Re: It's not like it takes any intelligence

It doesn’t seem to matter any way. Do you remember this?

“Red sky in morning, sailor’s warning. Red sky at night, sailor’s delight.”

Ignoring for the moment that the sky is always red now, the fact that computers can now reliably predict the weather four to five times farther in advance than that old adage might indicate that computer predictions of civil unrest, if similar improvements were made, could be useful.

Unfortunately, we already know that it won’t. For instance, we’ve known for 100 years that current conservative economic policies are bad for the country, and even though we threw Republicans out of government in 2008, we’re still following conservative policies today. We knew 80 years ago that prohibition would lead to a huge and expensive increase in violent crime. We knew 60 years ago that increases in atmospheric pollution would result in higher and expensive increases in temperature. We knew 40 years ago that plastics and many unnatural chemicals would build up the bodies of every human being on the planet.

The most accurate prediction is of no use if we choose to ignore it.

Tim K (profile) says:

Perhaps the advantage of the computer is that it can ‘read’ thousands of articles whereas a person can read significantly less. Obviously, the more articles read the more valid the conclusions of the reader are. If I read 5 articles about the goings on in Saudi Arabia I may draw different conclusions than a computer that read 65,000 articles about Saudi Arabia.

I’m not saying that the computer is going to be a huge asset, but I think its wrong to discount it simply because a person can read articles and draw conclusions too. I can do math too, but a computer is faster and better at it.

Richard (profile) says:

The very existence

The very existence of a computer program that could predict political unrest would itself have an impact on the unrest.

This could work two ways – it could become a self fulfilling prophecy – once people hear that the program is predicting revolt in their country – they have the confidence to revolt.

Alternatively the authorities make use of the predict to somehow attempt to avert it … not holding my breathe for that one though.

Anonymous Coward says:

One person can reach wrong conclusions for looking at just part of the whole, the thing about computers is that they don’t have bias, they don’t exclude themselves from data, that may be more reliable that trusting a person unless one have proved himself to be good at controlling his emotions while doing analysis.

Josh in CharlotteNC (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Computers have the bias that the programmers built into them. If it’s some sort of pseudo-neural network learning system (ie Watson), then it’s biased by the previous data it incorporated, plus any bias that was built in.

Second rule of tech support: computers always do exactly what you tell them to do, not what you mean for them to do.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

Very true.
Still, they do tend to be less biased despite all those problems.

And I believe in happy accidents where people biased towards one thing are trying to prove/find another and discover something about something unrelated to their original quest.

More or like Teflon was discovered, when Roy Plunkett was trying to make a better refrigerant and discovered Teflon.

And I know you can approximate moods analysing the tone of the words used just by counting the words used in posts everywhere.

You also can infer level of education from a native speaker of a language, age, sex, some psychological traits and some other parameters that although never exactly right always puts you on the ballpark of where that individual is.

Those things are possible or mothers everywhere wouldn’t be able to predict how their sons and daughters would react.

You can count other things too, like body expressions, patterns emerge in social structures, but humans are very bad in counting and interpreting those, maybe because we are not trained or learn to do that, but it doesn’t mean those patterns are not there.

Anonymous Coward says:

I have have no confidence that this effort will ever reliably forecast anything. An obvious problem being how to effectively accounting for media bias.
For example, the mainstream media here in the US have largely ignored the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations in which thousands of people have been massed in New York’s financial district in opposition to Wall Street’s corruption for the last week and a half. Thousands of people a week and a half, and still the US corporate owned media has very little ? if any coverage. (None ? print or video ? for the first week.) Now consider the coverage given to Tea Party protesters who’s messages are in alignment with corporatist goals (if not, in fact, authored by them).
So, if a significant social trend/narrative is not reported (or is dramatically under reported) and its converse enjoys heavy coverage, how do you program to correct for the biases in the data sample without introducing yet other biases?
The cardinal rule of computing: GIGO (garbage in ? garbage out).

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: We need to co-mingle theories... Since the 'infinite monkey' theory was just proved (somewhat), I propose the INFINITE GARBAGE theorum

I state that if we dump enough garbage into a computer system, eventually an open, collaborative, communicative, people centered, responsible government model will emerge….

Or perhaps the Infinite Monkeys will just fly out of my butt (86.7% more likely than the above, of course 68% of statistics are made up on the spot, like these)….

You never know what might happen with these ‘infinite’ theories…..

EveningStarNM (profile) says:

Re: The Thomas theorem

In a word, “yes”. The theory of self-fulfilling prophecies actually is a corollary to the observer effect. These predictions could even lead to that unrest becoming worse than it otherwise would.

For instance, let’s say you’re a dictator, and your computer tells you that the people will rebel next year. So you beef up your army and clamp down on civilians. As a result, the people will get angrier faster.

Muad'Dib says:

Who needs a computer to predict future unrest when you have a mentat?

It needs more than reason, it needs imagination. Societal undertones are not enough to extrapolate unrest, one also needs to analyze the motives of those who lead. It must operate under the assumption that nothing is done if not for political gain, whether for the overly oppressed or the tactful aristocrats.

You can expect better results from Paul, the Octopus.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Who needs a computer to predict future unrest when you have a mentat?

I don’t believe that is true, I think society is made up of individual that have a limited range of reactions to stimuli and finding out what stimuli triggers certain reactions is not that hard, one just need to pay attention even if not a 100% it can still be useful.

Just like the weather if you see a storm in the ocean heading your way even if for some reason it dissipates you still take precautions because you don’t know if it will reach you or not, but there is a chance that it will and the more close in time the storm gets the more difficult is for things to change suddenly, anger don’t just disappear, love just don’t disappear it takes some time.

By analysing what how people signal things you can have a somewhat accurate picture of how they will react based on their on external cues for which language is just one.

Muad'Dib says:

Re: Re: Who needs a computer to predict future unrest when you have a mentat?

Ah, because humanity is in a finite system, human reactions are finite and consistent, thus predictable. You say that a certain stimuli triggers a certain reaction in every person, leaving a trail that one can seek. How right you are! But when that is compounded with people among people, the number of possibilities is nears infinity, and the prime computation will require more than reason. Governments may rise and fall for reasons which appear insignificant. What small events! An argument between two women… which way the wind blows on a certain day… a sneeze, a cough, the length of a garment or the chance collision of a fleck of sand and a courtier’s eye.

You must reduce your strategy to its point of application. Where does one apply strategy? At a particular place and with a particular people in mind. But even with the greatest concern for minutiae, some small detail with no significance attached to it will escape you. Can your strategy be reduced to the ambitions of a regional governor’s wife?

hmm (profile) says:

no need

Weather prediction is slightly MORE accurate than the MPAA/RIAA predictions of a successful business model…..

If the MAFIAA were in charge of TV weather reports, we’d all be long dead from floods before they thought to issue a severe weather warning.

In other news – man arrested for standing outside in the rain….RIAA claims getting rained on outside is a public performance by ‘The Clouds’ and demands a fee.

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