Minority Report software can predict the future

Business as unusual.

Who'd have thought that Tom Cruise could be a harbinger of our global future? But silly sci-fi in the vein of Minority Report, where future events are predicted and dealt with before they even occur, may well have the last laugh if the findings coming out of the Microsoft Research lab are a sign of things to come.

Teamed with the Technion-Israel Institute, researchers set out to design software that can predict events before they happen. This includes epidemics and outbreaks of violence. It turns out that with 22 years worth of New York Times articles and a data-based Wikipedia the results are surprisingly accurate.

In fact, the software was able to correctly predict outbreaks of cholera in Angola based mainly on the occurrence of droughts in the area. The system signalled that incidents of cholera were likely because previous news reports had shown that cholera is common following droughts - perhaps due to poor sanitation through lack of water. Sure enough, days later in drought-stricken Angola the first cholera cases were being reported.

The researchers also found that the system they had developed could foresee violent and political unrest by combining factors such as location, citizen's earnings, and GDP. After testing the software on everything from political instability to epidemic outbreaks it has proved to be correct between 70-90 per cent of the time.

When it comes to violence, the findings are slightly controversial. The researcher's report concludes: "The system identified, in an automated manner, that for locations with large immigrant populations (e.g. Ohio and New York), the shooting of an unarmed person by the police can cause protests". This result suggests that the automation process may oversimplify complex events.

But the implications when it comes to disease are promising. If an epidemic can be predicted then aid agencies and governments can prepare for the worst, ensuring that help is on hand when the first incident hits.

Tom Cruise: harbinger of our global future? Photograph: Getty Images
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The strange death of boozy Britain: why are young people drinking less?

Ditching alcohol for work.

Whenever horrific tales of the drunken escapades of the youth are reported, one photo reliably gets wheeled out: "bench girl", a young woman lying passed out on a public bench above bottles of booze in Bristol. The image is in urgent need of updating: it is now a decade old. Britain has spent that time moving away from booze.

Individual alcohol consumption in Britain has declined sharply. In 2013, the average person over 15 consumed 9.4 litres of alcohol, 19 per cent less than 2004. As with drugs, the decline in use among the young is particularly notable: the proportion of young adults who are teetotal increased by 40 per cent between 2005 and 2013. But decreased drinking is not only apparent among the young fogeys: 80 per cent of adults are making some effort to drink less, according to a new study by consumer trends agency Future Foundation. No wonder that half of all nightclubs have closed in the last decade. Pubs are also closing down: there are 13 per cent fewer pubs in the UK than in 2002. 

People are too busy vying to get ahead at work to indulge in drinking. A combination of the recession, globalisation and technology has combined to make the work of work more competitive than ever: bad news for alcohol companies. “The cost-benefit analysis for people of going out and getting hammered starts to go out of favour,” says Will Seymour of Future Foundation.

Vincent Dignan is the founder of Magnific, a company that helps tech start-ups. He identifies ditching regular boozing as a turning point in his career. “I noticed a trend of other entrepreneurs drinking three, four or five times a week at different events, while their companies went nowhere,” he says. “I realised I couldn't be just another British guy getting pissed and being mildly hungover while trying to scale a website to a million visitors a month. I feel I have a very slight edge on everyone else. While they're sleeping in, I'm working.” Dignan now only drinks occasionally; he went three months without having a drop of alcohol earlier in the year.

But the decline in booze consumption isn’t only about people becoming more work-driven. There have never been more alternate ways to be entertained than resorting to the bottle. The rise of digital TV, BBC iPlayer and Netflix means most people means that most people have almost limitless choice about what to watch.

Some social lives have also partly migrated online. In many ways this is an unfortunate development, but one upshot has been to reduce alcohol intake. “You don’t need to drink to hang out online,” says Dr James Nicholls, the author of The Politics of Alcohol who now works for Alcohol Concern. 

The sheer cost of boozing also puts people off. Although minimum pricing on booze has not been introduced, a series of taxes have made alcohol more expensive, while a ban on below-cost selling was introduced last year. Across the 28 countries of the EU, only Ireland has higher alcohol and tobacco prices than the UK today; in 1998 prices in the UK were only the fourth most expensive in the EU.

Immigration has also contributed to weaning Britain off booze. The decrease in alcohol consumption “is linked partly to demographic trends: the fall is largest in areas with greater ethnic diversity,” Nicholls says. A third of adults in London, where 37 per cent of the population is foreign born, do not drink alcohol at all, easily the highest of any region in Britain.

The alcohol industry is nothing if not resilient. “By lobbying for lower duty rates, ramping up their marketing and developing new products the big producers are doing their best to make sure the last ten years turn out to be a blip rather than a long term change in culture,” Nicholls says.

But whatever alcohol companies do to fight back against the declining popularity of booze, deep changes in British culture have made booze less attractive. Forget the horrific tales of drunken escapades from Magaluf to the Bullingdon Club. The real story is of the strange death of boozy Britain. 

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.