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Asimov's Psychohistory Becoming a Reality? 291

northernboy writes "Today's LA Times has an article describing how a Wikileaks data dump from Afghanistan plus some advanced algorithms are allowing accurate predictions about the behavior of large groups of people. From the article: 'The programmers used simple code to extract dates and locations from about 77,000 incident reports that detailed everything from simple stop-and-search operations to full-fledged battles. The resulting map revealed the outlines of the country's ongoing violence: hot spots near the Pakistani border but not near the Iranian border, and extensive bloodshed along the country's main highway. They did it all in just one night. Now one member of that group has teamed up with mathematicians and computer scientists and taken the project one major step further: They have used the WikiLeaks data to predict the future.' Considering they did not discriminate between types of skirmish, but only when and where there was violence, this seems like an amazing result. It looks like our robotic overlords will have even less trouble controlling us than I previously thought."
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Asimov's Psychohistory Becoming a Reality?

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  • by siddesu ( 698447 ) on Tuesday July 17, 2012 @08:01PM (#40680257)

    In the absence of change in circumstances, it is quite obvious that areas of conflict will have more conflict. TFA doesn't say enough about the methodology for one to be able to estimate how valuable it is.

    On the other hand, yet another good thing about the Wikileak emerges. Were those data hidden by the secrecy wall, this research would not have been available to the NATO forces over there. Is secrecy really productive? Was the leak good or bad? Are the costly measures to make future leaks less likely a good investment?

    • by drinkypoo ( 153816 ) <> on Tuesday July 17, 2012 @08:02PM (#40680275) Homepage Journal

      On one hand, I know a person (personally) who knows another person (personally) who was named in the leak who was currently deployed over there. On the other hand, who can say that their identity wasn't already known? On the gripping hand, what the fuck are we actually doing over there anyway?

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by sp3d2orbit ( 81173 )

        > On the gripping hand, what the fuck are we actually doing over there anyway?

        We are enforcing Afghanistan's 1941 signing of the Declaration of Universal Right of Man. Hopefully by providing an environment where an alternative to the Taliban can establish power we will provide a lasting buffer against their tyranny.

        For those who say it isn't our business to protect the rights of others, that line of thinking was invalidated by WWII and previously in the Civil war.

        • by Black Parrot ( 19622 ) on Tuesday July 17, 2012 @09:31PM (#40680833)

          For those who say it isn't our business to protect the rights of others, that line of thinking was invalidated by WWII and previously in the Civil war.

          So what's our policy for deciding which people's rights get protected?

          Roll the dice, and if their country is important to our strategic economic interests we intervene, otherwise we don't?

          And whose right were we protecting on those occasions that we knocked off or destabilized democratically elected governments to put some thuggish warlord into power?

          • by artor3 ( 1344997 ) on Tuesday July 17, 2012 @11:27PM (#40681579)

            And whose right were we protecting on those occasions that we knocked off or destabilized democratically elected governments to put some thuggish warlord into power?

            The fact that people who happened to be born in the same 3.5 million square mile area as us did bad things decades ago does not mean that we should never do anything ever again.

            I'm against most wars for purely practical reasons: they're expensive, rarely work, and they kill lots of people. But intervening in other countries to stop atrocities can be a good thing, when done right. Suggesting we should never do so simply because we don't have a good way of deciding where to intervene is foolish. To use the requisite car analogy: I can't come up with a definitive method to make sure I always buy the right car, but that doesn't mean I should never buy a car, just that I should try my best to get it right.

        • So that's why we jumped right into Rwanda in 1994 to stop the genocide from happening there, right? Oh yeah, we didn't, we just let them be slaughtered because there's no oil there.

          And that's why we're in Somalia now, helping to set up a new government, right? Oh yeah, we're not, we're just letting anarchy reign, because there's no oil there.

        • That line of thinking was invalidated by WWII... how?

          Do you mean the part where the US came in after the Soviets had won the war in Europe and declared itself the winner?

          Or the part where the US took on an opponent that could barely challenge them... and used nuclear weapons in a war already practically won?

          Americans contributed very little to the defeat of the Axis. Most of the fall of the Axis can be attributed to the Nazi military leaders being just plain incompetent. And of course, the Soviet Union, to

          • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

            by jbburks ( 853501 )
            The US only entered the war after Japan attacked the US without warning one fine Sunday morning, firing the first shot of the Pacific War. Japan could have surrendered at any point and saved themselves from the atomic bombing. Instead, they were arming women and children with sharpened stakes. The nuclear bombing saved more lives, both US and Japanese than it took.
          • by The Master Control P ( 655590 ) <ejkeever@neDEBIA ... com minus distro> on Wednesday July 18, 2012 @02:45AM (#40682703)
            At the start of WWII, the alliance system that caused The Great War and the monstrous and pointless slaughter that went on during it were still very much fresh on everyone's mind. That was why Neville Chamberlain let Hitler get away with as much as he did in the 1930s (That and that Britain couldn't afford another war either). That was why the US retreated into an isolationist/protectionist shell. America is an impregnable fortress - we have two entire oceans between us and any plausible invader - why should we send our boys to die in a European fight? Not sending them into fights that aren't ours is rather the popular meme these days as I understand it.

            I'm also curious how you conclude that the US only showed up after the Soviets had won the war. Seeing as the US declared war on all the Axis powers in early December of 1941, at which time Soviet forces were in full retreat, and the decisive turning point in the Eastern front - the Battle of Stalingrad - didn't even begin until late summer 1942.

            I also question how you conclude that Japan could barely challenge the US, when the Pacific Theater (which, if I might remind you, the US that contributed "very little to the defeat of the Axis" fought essentially its own while simultaneously fighting and/or arming two others in North Africa and Europe) began with the US Pacific Fleet getting sucker-punched and suffering defeat after defeat for over a year. Yes, for many reasons it's certainly true that for Imperial Japan to start a war with the US was a suicidal proposition in the long term, but you dishonor the memory of all the men who died fighting towards the home islands to say they were barely challenged.

            And the war was most certainly not practically won - The Imperial Japanese Army's own internal documents say they were ready to send every person in their entire nation to die fighting, and not until the US demonstrated unequivocally that we could now grant that suicidal wish and not lose a single man doing it did they surrender (unconditionally surrender - Japanese has about a dozen ways to yes and no without actually saying yes and no). Our own generals were forecasting literally millions of dead (to say nothing of casualties) if we finished the island hopping strategy and invaded the Home Islands conventionally.

            Was the Axis doomed much sooner by Hitler's strategic incompetence? I'll let Operation Barbarossa speak to that, along with several other potentially critical decision points that shouldn't have gone in Allied favor (like the decision not to release Panzers at Normandy because the Fuhrer was asleep and not to be disturbed). Was America's industrial and manpower committment to the war a footnote? Not on your life.
        • by n3r0.m4dski11z ( 447312 ) on Wednesday July 18, 2012 @01:59AM (#40682423) Homepage Journal

          Restrepo dude. Afghanistan has a culture of repelling invaders. As in, it is in their shared cultural heritage and defines them as a people. It should be one of the last reformed places on earth. They just want to be left alone.

        • > On the gripping hand, what the fuck are we actually doing over there anyway?

          We are enforcing Afghanistan's 1941 signing of the Declaration of Universal Right of Man. Hopefully by providing an environment where an alternative to the Taliban can establish power we will provide a lasting buffer against their tyranny.

          For those who say it isn't our business to protect the rights of others, that line of thinking was invalidated by WWII and previously in the Civil war.

          When you invaded Afghanistan, you said it was because they were harbouring terrorists (presumably because they had a connection to the 9/11 attacks). There are many other countries where human rights violations on the same scale have been committed, that you haven't intervened military in.

          Pulling out of Afghanistan means the country will probably be in chaos for a long time, which not only means lots of human rights violations, but also that it'll remain a breeding ground for Islamistic terrorism. So I thin

        • >We are enforcing Afghanistan's 1941 signing of the Declaration of Universal Right of Man.

          Negotiations on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights began in 1946, the year after the end of World War 2 and were concluded when the document was signed in 1948. The document you cite does not exist nor has any document by that name ever been signed, least of all by Afghanistan. Assuming you meant the UDHR the date is actually very important. The UDHR has it's origins DURING World War 2 when the Allies based t

      • by mcrbids ( 148650 )

        With regards to "On the gripping hand", I think you are confusing Larry Niven with Asimov...

  • Macro versus Micro (Score:4, Informative)

    by girlintraining ( 1395911 ) on Tuesday July 17, 2012 @08:03PM (#40680279)

    Predicting what a group of people will do is fairly easy; Determining what a particular member of that group will do is very hard. So it can't predict who will attack; It might be able to tell you where though, and possibly when.

    • That was the point of "psychohistory." The idea was you can't predict the individuals, just the mass/net effect over time.
      • by Teresita ( 982888 ) <badinage1&netzero dot net> on Tuesday July 17, 2012 @08:25PM (#40680421) Homepage
        The concept was fascinating and original, but flawed. Asimov based psychohistory on thermodynamics, not chaos theory. Greg Bear tossed around a lot of technobabble in "Foundation and Chaos" but his understanding of the underlying theory was as simplistic as George Lucas and his "good force/dark force" dualism. If Asimov hadn't have contracted HIV from that blood transfusion, he would have had Seldon (in yet another prequel) speak of the Second Empire as a strange attractor, without focusing on the details that led up to it.
        • The Reverend Dr. Thomas Bayes tells us that we can't do worse than chance if we have data, and sometimes we can do better.
      • Or, more likely, assign probabilities for where and when.

        That was the point of "psychohistory." The idea was you can't predict the individuals, just the mass/net effect over time.

        Of course, if all you can predict is probabilities you quickly diverge from reality.

        The analogy between this and psychohistory is ridiculous.

        • Of course, if all you can predict is probabilities you quickly diverge from reality.

          Hence the Second Foundation.

  • The first rule of Asimov's psychohistory is that you cannot tell the people you're monitoring that psychohistory exists. So publishing this has now invalidated the possiblity, showing yet another example of a headline that is a question to which the answer is, "no."

  • Kinda interesting application of statistics for the social science (if there is such a thing) to the intertubes. If I was to guess, probably some type of hierarchical linear modeling [] with dates and locations as factors. Easy schmeezy, but interesting none-the-less.

    And by "simple code to extract dates and locations", I'm sure they meant regex [].
    • by AHuxley ( 892839 )
      You have the public stats of groups and regions supported by Pakistan, India, Iran, Saudi Arabia, links to MI6/SAS/CIA and warlords, US protected drug growers/exporters.
      Thats the public face of the region.
      Then you have that strange [] event that shows the world the reality of what the US is really doing.
      What can the US do now? Follow a MI6 vision of small drug growing areas dependant on outside help but stable enough to hold local "elections"?
      The Soviet idea of
  • It's only temporary (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Narrowband ( 2602733 ) on Tuesday July 17, 2012 @08:14PM (#40680351)
    Even in Asimov's world, psychohistory only works on groups that don't practice psychohistory themselves. Harry Seldon only kept things from going off the rails by making the science die out, and by starting a Second Foundation of telepaths.

    Once someone starts making predictions from data aggregation more effective, the race will be on to duplicate or improve on it, and then nobody's prediction algorithms will work.

    Almost sounds like someone should write a dystopian Foundation book, where the mathematicians race to predict each others' predictive abilities (and of course, stop them!)
    • by HornWumpus ( 783565 ) on Tuesday July 17, 2012 @08:21PM (#40680397)

      Sounds like algorithmic trading.

      • by Robotbeat ( 461248 ) on Tuesday July 17, 2012 @08:50PM (#40680579) Journal

        Sounds like algorithmic trading.

        That's EXACTLY, EXACTLY what I was thinking. We've solved a lot of the secrets of the atom (and seemed to decide mostly as a society that we don't want to harness that power), the two great superpowers have essentially made peace (superpower defined as a great power that can project regional-great-power-level globally... something that China will not be capable of for decades, hemmed in as they are on all sides by powerful rivals), money for "big science" has started to dry up (partly because of "starve the beast" politics starving the US of greatness, partly by the fact the Cold War is over), and we've just found the Higgs, basically confirming the Standard Model. So, what do we do? Well, theoretical physicists turn out to be really good at modeling arcane, abstract things. They've been moving en masse (remember, they're still a tiny group compared to all the MBAs out there) into quantitative finance. A lot of technology that once went to building faster and faster supercomputers (such as interconnect technology similar to Infiniband) is now being used to reduce latencies for financial transactions, where nanoseconds matter.

        And while I've often felt pretty skeptical (as a graduate student physicist myself) about the purpose of string theory, a theoretical physicist-turned quant said, "It turns out that string theory is useful in valuing mortgage backed securities."

        Somewhat unlike physical laws, the nature of financial systems changes constantly, so you have to redo your models (not just the constants in your models, but the models themselves) quite often, meaning endless job security for these physicist quants. And we're talking about the world's economy, meaning the potential profits aren't marginal, like they might be for designing a slightly more efficient laser or semiconductor, but is literally all the liquid or semiliquid assets in the world. After the end of the Cold War, physicists have found a way to be indispensable again.

        It's an arms race of quantitative finance going on out there. Personally, I think it's unsustainable and will eventually result in an enormous clampdown as we have more flash-crashes or something unforeseen, but even then, there will still be a market for quantitive finance as long as there is money.

        • I think it will eventually kill non algorithmic speculation. Then they will only have each other to feed on.

          It's much harder to model investments. Long term it's more about having the information or not. losing 1/4 penny per trade isn't a huge deal if you stay in positions for months at least.

          Speculation is a basic market distorting problem.

          On your post: I've worked with a bunch of underemployed physicists on utility system models. It must have sucked reporting to an engineer who wasn't even a PhD. I

      • Exactly.

        I had an interesting chat about how economy is taught and this popped out. Having a science where the mere prediction of an outcome might influence that outcome makes it absolutely interesting and quite chaotic.

      • by artor3 ( 1344997 )

        Asimov also wrote a short story, "Alexander the God", which predicted algorithmic trading and its downfalls. It's not a particularly good story, in truth, and was only published posthumously, but it was rather insightful in its prediction. In it, a man develops a computer algorithm to predict shifts in the stock market, and uses it to become fabulously wealthy. However, it all comes crashing down, when the one thing his algorithmic trading cannot account for is algorithmic trading.

  • Not a prediction (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Hentes ( 2461350 ) on Tuesday July 17, 2012 @08:27PM (#40680431)

    This is model building, not prediction. They tried to find a model that can calculate the events of 2010 based on data from 2009. This may sound like prediction, but the important thing is that the researchers started this after the events the model "predicted" happened. Thus, they were able to tweak their models to fit reality. This is not a bad thing, that's how you create working models, but a prediction is a statement about things in the future. They only made predictions now that they have published their results, and whether they are right or not remains to be seen.

  • The full paper ... (Score:5, Informative)

    by bwoneill ( 1973028 ) on Tuesday July 17, 2012 @08:29PM (#40680443)

    for those who are interested. I'm looking forward to reading it this weekend. []

  • Psychohistory (Score:5, Interesting)

    by br00tus ( 528477 ) on Tuesday July 17, 2012 @08:31PM (#40680447)
    Most modern Americans are unaware of the worldwide ideological debates of the early 20th century, and thus they miss the boat on what psychohistory obviously is. From a variety of things, including knowing Asimov's involvement with the Futurians in the 1930s, it's obvious that psychohistory is a parody of the Marxist conception of historical materialism []. In fact, to anyone familiar with Marxian historical materialism, it is incredibly easy to see that this is what is made reference to by psychohistory in the book - although in the book the technique has been further developed. I've always felt the Mule was a reference to charismatic leaders like Hitler and Mussolini - ugly at close view, but with the ability to persuade large masses of people nonetheless, something which Marx did not foresee. That's just my interpretation though, it's not completely clear. I think that Hari Seldon is a Karl Marx figure is even more of a sure bet than the Mule possibility. To people who don't know the ideas of the Futurians, or the ideological ideas within the milieu of left-wing Jewish intellectual circles in New York City in the 1930s, I think it is easy to miss a lot of the references being made.
    • Considering Asimov's political leanings, I doubt it was meant as some sort of parody.

    • Thanks. Very interesting.

    • by JWW ( 79176 )

      Very interesting idea. This would definitely explain why, upon reading the trilogy, I found psychohistory so distasteful.

      I felt the Foundation trilogy was nowhere near as good as people made it out to be. The Dune books far far outpaced it in creating a complex galactic human empire.

    • by khallow ( 566160 )

      To people who don't know the ideas of the Futurians, or the ideological ideas within the milieu of left-wing Jewish intellectual circles in New York City in the 1930s, I think it is easy to miss a lot of the references being made.

      In the defense of the ignorant masses, one can say the same of just about any literary work ever made. It's generally thought that the author makes references, but really it's the reader. And the more creative the reader is, the more such references they will find no matter the work.

  • But what if there's the triumvirate of the LA Times, Wikileaks, and Miss Cleo's pyschic hotline and one of them disagrees and files a minority report? Then how will anyone take this precrime prediction seriously? lol.
  • Butterfly effect. (Score:4, Interesting)

    by bmo ( 77928 ) on Tuesday July 17, 2012 @08:34PM (#40680469)

    And there is no accounting in any of this for the actions of a dumbass Lance Corporal and his buddies inducing utter chaos into the system.

    Scene: Djibouti near the Ethiopian Border. A bunch of Lance Corporal Marines and their CO.

    "Stand watch here, and if anyone in Ethiopia comes over, you need to tell us and chase them back into Ethiopia. But under no circumstances are you to go into Ethiopia yourselves, not even if they're firing upon you. We mean it. Got that?"

    "Sure thing"

    Armed Ethiopians of doubtful allegiance cross the border into Djibouti
    Lance corporals enthusiastically chase them back and cross into Ethiopia themselves while armed

    Possible outcome that didn't happen:
    "Daddy, what did you do in the Ethiopian War?"
    "Our unit started it."

    This may or may not be true. But I tell this story to make a point. Like a butterfly flapping its wings in the Inter-tropical Convergence Zone to trigger a hurricane, the action of a few dumbasses can trigger some serious shit. Since we're talking psychohistory here, Hari Seldon's Plan broke down under the chaos of the Mule. You can do all the modelling you want, but complex systems such as human societies and such, are prone to chaos introduced by small numbers of influential people, whether they know it or not and good luck trying to model *that* and predict on it.


    • by gmuslera ( 3436 )
      I would call it the blue butterfly effect, for PKDick's The lethal factor story Knowing the future and acting, without knowing the effect of that action could get strange results.
    • Re:Butterfly effect. (Score:4, Interesting)

      by jasnw ( 1913892 ) on Tuesday July 17, 2012 @11:45PM (#40681719)
      But the point of Asimov's version of psycohistory is that the actions of one person, unless they are a tremendous outlier such as the Mule, don't matter. In the case you give, there's this powderkeg called Ethiopia just waiting to explode. If the lance corporal and his buddies you postulate aren't there to trigger things, some other idiot will. At least one of Asiomov's stories involves one of the Traders trying like crazy to make sure that things come out correctly, only to fail at every attempt. When all looks like failure, the "dead hand of Harry Seldon" reaches in through another agency totally outside the Trader's framework to put things back on track. It's not that a particular match will light up history's bonfire, it's that once history has built the bonfire some match will.
  • by TWX ( 665546 ) on Tuesday July 17, 2012 @08:39PM (#40680507)
    But I thought that The Mule left office in 2009...
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward

      He was replaced by The Jackass.

  • So the only way to change the world is to create someone who is unpredictable.

  • Science fiction stories that appear to predict the future do so only because they're already true. They're not so much predictions about the future as caricatures of the present, the modern equivalent of Aesop's fables or the biblical parables. Big Brother already existed in some form in the Soviet Union when Orwell wrote 1984 (1948). Psychohistory is behavioral psychology given a statistical twist.
  • by rossdee ( 243626 )

    Seldon's plan only workrd because he had the Second Foundation to keep the Empire on track.

  • by steveha ( 103154 ) on Tuesday July 17, 2012 @09:24PM (#40680789) Homepage

    The idea of psychohistory was also explored by Michael F. Flynn in a novel called In the Country of the Blind; he didn't use that word, but rather the word "cliology". In that novel, cliology was independently invented by multiple people at approximately the same time, and there were several secret societies trying to use cliology to model what would happen and steer the course of history. But with multiple societies working at cross-purposes, things got a bit messy at times. (But at least one of the secret societies just used cliology to pick stocks and get fabulously wealthy.) []

    It's not a perfect book, but some of the ideas are really interesting.


  • by cstacy ( 534252 )
    Vote MULE in 2012!
  • by Arancaytar ( 966377 ) <> on Wednesday July 18, 2012 @01:53AM (#40682393) Homepage

    "If I determine the enemy's disposition of forces while I have no perceptible form, I can concentrate my forces while the enemy is fragmented. The pinnacle of military deployment approaches the formless. If it is formless, then even the deepest spy cannot discern it nor the wise make plans against it." Sun Tzu, Art of War, Datalinks.

    (Actual psychohistory, though, was supposed to predict events over a thousand years. Not happening.)

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