Predictive Analytics and Heisenberg

Prediction is very difficult, especially if it's about the future. - Niels Bohr
Steampunk Smartphone Case
image ©2010-2014 catbones
In January 2013, IBM published a press release about its growing capability of predicting fashion trends based on analysis of existing information. It read, in part, "Based on an analysis of more than a half million public posts on message boards, blogs, social media sites and news sources, IBM predicts that ‘steampunk,’ a sub-genre inspired by the clothing, technology and social mores of Victorian society, will be a major trend to bubble up, and take hold, of the retail industry." When I first read this, I found it amusing, and also a perfectly reasonable extension of the application of predictive analytics to a portion of the massive amount of information that surrounds us every day. What caught my eye, however, was an article that referred to IBM's work on this, written about the "risks of predictive analytics" that tried to cast IBM's actions as the leading edge of dangerous practices that could unduly affect outcomes. Although statements of "fact", asserted by trusted sources, can influence beliefs, the "warning" struck me as unwarranted and insufficiently reasoned in this particular context. While propaganda can certainly be dangerous, the topic really needed deeper analysis and a more discriminating treatment in order to make any bold or useful assertions.

Going back to Heisenberg, his "Uncertainty Principle" - which was developed with respect to quantum mechanics and subatomic particles - tells us that, "...we cannot measure the position (x) and the momentum (p) of a particle with absolute precision. The more accurately we know one of these values, the less accurately we know the other." A major implication of the concept, is that the very act of measuring something will actually modify attributes of the item we're trying to measure.

In the field of perception, psychologists learned many years ago that "expectation enhances percept". This was demonstrated numerous times through repeatable experiments with highly consistent results. In short, if a subject is familiar with the perceptual characteristics of something, the likelihood of recognizing the item when it is present increases significantly.

Of course there are various studies illustrating the notion that statements of belief or of "fact" (whether or not actually true), especially by trusted sources (such as IBM), will often be internalized by an audience as actually being statements of fact, after which these bits of information may be repeated, shared and otherwise disseminated as actually being "fact".

In the fashion industry, designers and vendors are constantly trying to anticipate the next "hot" trend -- or define it in such a way as to make it a self-fulfilling prophecy. I will hazard a guess that relatively few in the world of designers are on the verge of setting aside their existing methodologies, and the opinions of their industry experts, in favor of following IBM's predictions until, and unless, IBM can demonstrate a convincing track record of out-predicting the fashion industry gurus.

Equities markets are far more susceptible to skewed performance based on forecasts. The entire concept of stock and commodities markets is tied to forecasting future performance and value as accurately as possible, and investors (with the exception of a very small percent) will typically act on any seemingly credible forecast. What's perhaps different here, though, is that the actual determinants of stock "value" are obscure for most investors, so they must rely on 3rd party forecasts that they barely understand, if at all. Forecasts for other items such as upcoming fashion preferences won't be swayed as radically by mass market belief in a forecast.

The NRSRO's (nationally recognized statistical ratings organizations, such as S&P Ratings, Fitch, Moody's, Egan-Jones, etc.) exist to evaluate organizations and the debt they hold, creating ratings that, in effect, lead to forecasts of the value of the companies and those debt instruments. These clearly have enormous impacts on the markets -- e.g., a downgrade in ratings will often be followed by a sell off of the corresponding bonds. So - there's nothing new here: it's a generally accepted notion that forecasts of future value do, in fact, have some bearing on that future value. Forecasts like these actually can become self-fulfilling prophecies, which is why there has been increasing scrutiny and regulation regarding the practices of the NRSRO's. But it's also important to remember that the credibility of such organizations has to be earned through past success.

If IBM were seriously trying to establish a new and defensible qualification as a fashion forecaster extraordinaire, they would most likely have come up with a way of "logging" their forecast, and publishing encrypted - but publicly available - forecasts, releasing the decryption key after enough time has passed to test the validity of the forecast. Instead, such an open forecast like this is more of a general demonstration of their capabilities, suitable for marketing and public relations. I'm having trouble seeing any kind of major impact on the steam punk market, although I've been wondering lately what a steampunk treatment of a smartphone might look like...

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