Can human behaviour be predicted with enough data?

I’m watching a presentation by Albert László Barabási on his book BURSTS: The Hidden Pattern Behind Everything We Do, and he’s telling some fascinating stories.

For instance, had you heard of Hasan Elahi, a media artist who after being investigated by the FBI for suspected terrorism (due to unusual travel patterns, among other things) put his entire life online at Tracking Transcience? Here’s a piece Elahi wrote in the New York Times about this project, or you can watch him talk about the project for TED. Actually the information is not very easy for a viewer to put together (he calls it user-unfriendly), but he has fed in a lot of images, his bank records, location, and so forth. The images are very sparse, void of people, factual. There are photos of every toilet he uses, for instance, or every taco he eats near a railway station, all time, location and date-stamped. But apparently, in BURST, Barabási analyses Elahi’s data to see how typical his patterns of movement are.

The reason for the title of BURSTS is that it turns out our behaviour is conglomerated in bursts (around 16 mins into the talk). We have periods where we send lots of emails, or talk on the phone a lot, or visit the library a lot, or even have sex a lot, and then there are gaps where we do these things much less. This actually follows power laws, and is not purely random.

Barabasi also analysed anonymised mobile phone data to analyse how people move around (around 24 mins into the video). He found that if you know the past movements of a person, you can predict their next location with a 93% accuracy. Another interesting point is that there is nobody whose predictability (in terms of location) is less than 80%. (That might actually explain why Foursquare and Gowalla and so on get a little boring after a while.) But ultimately, Barabási argues, with enough data, we might be able to predict all kinds of human behaviour – collapses of stock markets, wars, major historical events, and so on.

BURST has rather poor reviews on Amazon, where it is criticised for having too much story and too little science. Regardless of whether or not you read the book, his 30 minute talk on it is interesting.

04. January 2012 by Jill
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