Supercomputer Predicts Civil Unrest

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In Isaac Asimov's "Foundation" series, the future of masses of people can be predicted with "psychohistory," a method of predicting future political 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 Remote Data Analysis and Visualization, may have brought the world closer to Asimov's vision, though it is still early days. The key is seeking patterns in massive amounts of data and being able to visualize them. Kalev Leetaru, assistant director for text and digital media analytics at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, did just that.

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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 patterns emerging that seemed 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.

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It isn't just the tone of the articles, however; it's also the change in tone over time. According to Leetaru's findings, Saudia Arabia's government has remained in power because the tone of the news there has been equally negative in the past, whereas the tenor of it in Tunisia and Egypt has hit new lows. Leetaru notes that many country experts on Egypt said Mubarak would likely ride out the uprising, as he had done before.

Another pattern the supercomputer was able to tease out was evidence of Osama bin Laden living in Pakistan. It did so by checking how often his name was recorded in association with the country. Visualized as lines on a map (pictured above) connecting the cities mentioned in stories that also referenced bin Laden, a pattern emerged that centered on northern Pakistan — within a couple of hundred miles of Islamabad.

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All this is possible because the supercomputer can seek patterns in networks with 100 trillion connections and 10 billion nodes (or actors). An ordinary computer, Leetaru says, can only look at small parts of the data at a time, and even attempting to run many in parallel wouldn't do the job. That's because when mapping networks, the amount of memory required goes up exponentially with the number of connections. Only a supercomputer could do it, and it was getting the time on the machine (140,000 hours per processor, or about a week with the whole thing running at once) that really enabled Leetaru to make the kinds of conclusions he did. 

The technology isn't able to predict events precisely yet. Leetaru likens it to the early days of weather forecasting — at one point, not much better than a guess, but now reliable enough to base decisions on. It won't predict individual actions, but it might be able to say what the reaction to something like the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi in Tunisia would be.

It's obvious why Intelligence agencies and militaries would be very interested. Asked if they had called, Leetaru said, "I can't answer that."

Image: Kalev H. Leetaru

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