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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You may call me a monster – but I'm glad that girl's lemonade stall got shut down

What's wrong with hard-working public servants enforcing perfectly sensible regulations?

Who could fail to be moved by the widely shared tears of a five year old whose innocent lemonade stall was brutally shut down by evil bureaucrats? What sort of monster would not have their heartstrings tugged by the plaintive “I've done a bad thing” from a girl whose father tells us she “just wanted to put a smile on people's faces”?

Well me, actually.

There are half a million cases of food poisoning each year in the UK, and one of the reasons we have stringent controls on who can sell food and drink, especially in unsealed containers, is to try to cut those figures down. And street stalls in general are regulated because we have a system of taxation, rights and responsibilities in this country which underpins our functioning society. Regulation is a social and economic good.

It’s also pretty unfair to criticise the hard-working public servants who acted in this case for doing the job they are no doubt underpaid to do. For the council to say “we expect our enforcement officers to show common sense” as they cancelled the fine is all very well, but I’m willing to bet they are given precious little leeway in their training when it comes to who gets fined and who doesn’t. If the council is handing out apologies, it likely should be issuing one to its officers as well.

“But these are decent folk being persecuted by a nanny state,” I hear you cry. And I stand impervious, I’m afraid. Because I’ve heard that line a lot recently and it’s beginning to grate.

It’s the same argument used against speed cameras and parking fines. How often have you heard those caught out proclaim themselves as “law-abiding citizens” and bemoan the infringement of their freedom? I have news for you: if you break the speed limit, or park illegally, or indeed break health and safety or trading regulations, you are not a law-abiding citizen. You’re actually the one who’s in the wrong.

And rarely is ignorance an excuse. Speed limits and parking regulations are posted clearly. In the case of the now famous lemonade stand, the father in question is even quoted as saying “I thought that they would just tell us to pack up and go home.” So he knew he was breaking the rules. He just didn’t think the consequences should apply to him.

A culture of entitlement, and a belief that rules are for other people but not us, is a disease gripping middle Britain. It is demonstrated in many different ways, from the driver telling the cyclist that she has no right to be on the road because she doesn’t pay road tax (I know), to the father holding up his daughter’s tears to get out of a fine.

I know, I’m a monster. But hooray for the enforcers, I say.

Duncan Hothersall is the editor of Labour Hame