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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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear