In the last three years, America’s military and intelligence agencies have spent more than $125 million on computer models that are supposed to forecast political unrest. It’s the latest episode in Washington’s four-decade dalliance with future-spotting programs. But if any of these algorithms saw the upheaval in Egypt coming, the spooks and the generals are keeping the predictions very quiet.
Instead, the head of the CIA is getting hauled in front of Congress, making calls about Egypt’s future based on what he read in the press, and getting proven wrong hours later. Meanwhile, an array of Pentagon-backed social scientists, software engineers and computer modelers are working to assemble forecasting tools that are able to reliably pick up on geopolitical trends worldwide. It remains a distant goal.
“All of our models are bad, some are less bad than others,” says Mark Abdollahian, a political scientist and executive at Sentia Group, which has built dozens of predictive models for government agencies.
“We do better than human estimates, but not by much,” Abdollahian adds. “But think of this like Las Vegas. In blackjack, if you can do four percent better than the average, you’re making real money.”
Over the past three years, the Office of the Secretary of Defense has handed out $90 million to more than 50 research labs to assemble some basic tools, theories and processes than might one day produce a more predictable prediction system. None are expected to result in the digital equivalent of crystal balls any time soon.