US intelligence agency aims to forecast unrest by reading the runes of social media.
It is every government’s dream: a system that can predict future events such as riots, political upheavals and the outbreak of wars. Last week, a collection of academics and private businesses was scrambling to meet the deadline for proposals for research aiming to do just that.
The Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA), a research arm of the US intelligence community, is sponsoring the work under the Open Source Indicators (OSI) programme. The three-year project, with an unspecified budget, is designed to gather digital data from a range of sources, from traffic webcams to television to Twitter. The goal, according to IARPA, is to provide the intelligence community with predictions of social and political events that can “beat the news”.
Initially, the OSI project will focus on Latin America, which has abundant publicly available data and offers a convenient test bed for researchers’ models. Those models will build on strategies that have already shown promise for predicting disease outbreaks and consumer behaviour, and which are becoming increasingly popular with US national security agencies (see Nature 471, 566–568; 2011).
Indeed, the OSI project is one of many being sponsored by the US national security community, which seeks to meld mathematics, computer science and economics with the social sciences, creating a new field of social and political forecasting that has often been compared to Isaac Asimov‘s concept of ‘psychohistory’.
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