A look into the future may no longer require palm readings, star alignments or tarot cards after the release of a new technology purporting to be an all-encompassing oracle of the future.
The Swedish-American software company, Recorded Future, has developed a program that specialises in predictive analysis and with backers including the CIA investment arm In-Q-Tel, it is hoped that averting terrorist attacks could be one of its uses.
“It is a useful aid but prediction is always difficult. The world we face has wicked problems, and it's important to understand that people like (Anders Behring) Breivik and Al-Qaeda are pretty savvy in concealing themselves through code words and disguised meanings,” says Magnus Ranstorp, Research Director of the Centre for Asymmetric Threat Studies at the Swedish National Defence College (Försvarshögskolan) and one of Sweden's foremost experts on Islamic terrorism.
Using what they coin as a ”temporal analytics engine,” their forecasting tool helps analysts predict events and trends by scanning hundreds of thousands of high-quality news publications, blogs, public niche sources, trade magazines, government web sites, financial databases and more.
The program then sifts through the myriad of publicly available information, looking to identify links, extract information, measure data and visualize information that reveals patterns of the past, present and the future probability of almost anything.
The company claims its tool to be so sensitive to data changes that it could even ”beat the news” and anticipate political crises, disease outbreaks, major market fluctuations, resource shortages and natural disasters, to a name a few.
And the world is listening. Both Google and the United States intelligence agency, the CIA, are financial backers of Recorded Future through their investment arms by In-Q-Tel and Google Ventures, respectively.
The Massachusetts-based Recorded Future's concept appears to be a close cousin to similar data analysis tools that Dow Jones, Thomson Reuters and Selerity are building for the financial industry. Their idea is to develop a program that analyzes the news to predict how it will affect individual stocks and markets.
While the company offers tailored approaches to the financial arena, it extends its ability to harness the predictive power of the web and can provide analysis for almost any sector or industry.
In this new era of redefined terrorism and the threat of seemingly random attacks around any corner, could such software alter history and evade or thwart evil plots?
“It's important to have this technology, to use it, and to understand its limits. In the end, it's not going to be enough though – we need human interaction to sift through data,” says Magnus Ranstorp.
Recorded Future claims it can monitor terrorist activity by tracking the individuals who are attracting attention, who are connected and where they are travelling, to cite a few examples.
Ranstorp, who CNN named its principal terrorism expert following the September 11th attacks and who was invited to testify before the first hearing of the 9/11 Commission, concurs that this type of network analysis can reveal strengths in patterns of different types of relationships between individuals and entities but he points out it is also always limited to open source data.
“Terrorist related operators know what not to say and use closed chat rooms. But, even when trolling open source information, one still needs to know exactly what they are looking for,” says Ranstorp, adding that due to the complicated nature of terrorism, one small change can change and effect many other facets in a blink of an eye.
“No intelligence service has the man-power or man-hours to go through the tsunami of information that is on the web, but it is still a useful tool to indicate broad-based trends and patterns,” he concludes.
Other sectors Recorded Future can assist relate to marketing and branding, public relations, business intelligence and more.
For example, it can monitor the impact of an advertising campaign or view the momentum of online discourse over a period of time for brand analysis.
Naturally, the program transcends language barriers with the ability to understand all the ingenious devices of the human language, amplifying its effectiveness.
Not only does Recorded Future review events and entities, it has the capacity to analyze time and space dimension, meaning references to where and when an event has taken place, or even where and when it will take place.
This is only the tip of its soothsaying abilities. The rest lies buried in the endless undulation of open source information swirling online.
Of course, it is not a perfect tool as some phenomena, like the spontaneous volcano eruption in Iceland, are truly impossible to predict.
While admitting their algorithms are not perfect, Recorded Future believes that by gathering, interpreting and linking the information available to the world, it can effectively reveal all that mankind really does know about the future.