Decoding the Future for National Security

George I. Seffers at Signal: “U.S. intelligence agencies are in the business of predicting the future, but no one has systematically evaluated the accuracy of those predictions—until now. The intelligence community’s cutting-edge research and development agency uses a handful of predictive analytics programs to measure and improve the ability to forecast major events, including political upheavals, disease outbreaks, insider threats and cyber attacks.

The Office for Anticipating Surprise at the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA) is a place where crystal balls come in the form of software, tournaments and throngs of people. The office sponsors eight programs designed to improve predictive analytics, which uses a variety of data to forecast events. The programs all focus on incidents outside of the United States, and the information is anonymized to protect privacy. The programs are in different stages, some having recently ended as others are preparing to award contracts.

But they all have one more thing in common: They use tournaments to advance the state of the predictive analytic arts. “We decided to run a series of forecasting tournaments in which people from around the world generate forecasts about, now, thousands of real-world events,” says Jason Matheny, IARPA’s new director. “All of our programs on predictive analytics do use this tournament style of funding and evaluating research.” The Open Source Indicators program used a crowdsourcing technique in which people across the globe offered their predictions on such events as political uprisings, disease outbreaks and elections.

The data analyzed included social media trends, Web search queries and even cancelled dinner reservations—an indication that people are sick. “The methods applied to this were all automated. They used machine learning to comb through billions of pieces of data to look for that signal, that leading indicator, that an event was about to happen,” Matheny explains. “And they made amazing progress. They were able to predict disease outbreaks weeks earlier than traditional reporting.” The recently completed Aggregative Contingent Estimation (ACE) program also used a crowdsourcing competition in which people predicted events, including whether weapons would be tested, treaties would be signed or armed conflict would break out along certain borders. Volunteers were asked to provide information about their own background and what sources they used. IARPA also tested participants’ cognitive reasoning abilities. Volunteers provided their forecasts every day, and IARPA personnel kept score. Interestingly, they discovered the “deep domain” experts were not the best at predicting events. Instead, people with a certain style of thinking came out the winners. “They read a lot, not just from one source, but from multiple sources that come from different viewpoints. They have different sources of data, and they revise their judgments when presented with new information. They don’t stick to their guns,” Matheny reveals. …

The ACE research also contributed to a recently released book, Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction, according to the IARPA director. The book was co-authored, along with Dan Gardner, by Philip Tetlock, the Annenberg University professor of psychology and management at the University of Pennsylvania who also served as a principal investigator for the ACE program. Like ACE, the Crowdsourcing Evidence, Argumentation, Thinking and Evaluation program uses the forecasting tournament format, but it also requires participants to explain and defend their reasoning. The initiative aims to improve analytic thinking by combining structured reasoning techniques with crowdsourcing.

Meanwhile, the Foresight and Understanding from Scientific Exposition (FUSE) program forecasts science and technology breakthroughs….(More)”