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More than 60 years ago, in his “Foundation” series, the science fiction novelist Isaac Asimov invented a new science — psychohistory — that combined mathematics and psychology to predict the future.
The most optimistic researchers believe that these storehouses of “big data” will for the first time reveal sociological laws of human behavior — enabling them to predict political crises, revolutions and other forms of social and economic instability, just as physicists and chemists can predict natural phenomena.
Some social scientists and advocates of privacy rights are deeply skeptical of the project, saying it evokes queasy memories of Total Information Awareness, a post-9/11 Pentagon program that proposed hunting for potential attackers by identifying patterns in vast collections of public and private data: telephone calling records, e-mail, travel data, visa and passport information, and credit card transactions.
The automated data collection system is to focus on patterns of communication, consumption and movement of populations. It will use publicly accessible data, including Web search queries, blog entries, Internet traffic flow, financial market indicators, traffic webcams and changes in Wikipedia entries.
The government is showing interest in the idea. This summer a little-known intelligence agency began seeking ideas from academic social scientists and corporations for ways to automatically scan the Internet in 21 Latin American countries for “big data,” according to a research proposal being circulated by the agency. The three-year experiment, to begin in April, is being financed by the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity, or Iarpa (pronounced eye-AR-puh), part of the office of the director of national intelligence.
The Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA) is a United States research agency under the Director of National Intelligence's responsibility. In January 2008, Lisa Porter, an administrator at NASA with experience at DARPA, was appointed director of the activity formed in 2006 from the National Security Agency's Disruptive Technology Office (DTO), the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency’s National Technology Alliance and the Central Intelligence Agency’s Intelligence Technology Innovation Center. The Director of National Intelligence in a September 2006 speech stated that the goal of the agency is to conduct research that
Cuts across multiple IC agencies;
Targets new opportunities that lie in the white spaces between agencies;
Provides innovations that agencies avoid because of current business models; and
Generates revolutionary capabilities that will surprise our adversaries and help us avoid being surprised.
The Metaphor Program is a two-phase project designed to first develop automated techniques for recognizing, defining and categorizing linguistic metaphors and then use that information to characterize differing cultural perspectives. The Program is headed by Heather McCallum-Bayliss. On May 2011, IARPA issued an open solicitation for private sector parties to participate in the Program.
In its most recent budget proposal, the defense agency argues that its analysis can expose terrorist cells and other stateless groups by tracking their meetings, rehearsals and sharing of material and money transfers.
The company is called Recorded Future, and it scours tens of thousands of websites, blogs and Twitter accounts to find the relationships between people, organizations, actions and incidents — both present and still-to-come. In a white paper, the company says its temporal analytics engine “goes beyond search” by “looking at the ‘invisible links’ between documents that talk about the same, or related, entities and events.”
The idea is to figure out for each incident who was involved, where it happened and when it might go down. Recorded Future then plots that chatter, showing online “momentum” for any given event.
“The cool thing is, you can actually predict the curve, in many cases,” says company CEO Christopher Ahlberg, a former Swedish Army Ranger with a PhD in computer science.
Which naturally makes the 16-person Cambridge, Massachusetts, firm attractive to Google Ventures, the search giant’s investment division, and to In-Q-Tel, which handles similar duties for the CIA and the wider intelligence community.