Q&A with Recorded Future CEO Christopher Ahlberg
Business Insider today published an exclusive, wide-ranging interview with Recorded Future CEO Christopher Ahlberg entitled “This Man Can Predict the Future.” We’ve carved out some highlights below or you can read the full Q&A at Business Insider.
From the interview:
BI: You don’t do a lot of marketing or advertising at all. How do you make that sales pitch? Coming at it from the outside, it sounds crazy, but based on past trends, we can do a pretty good job of predicting future events. How do you prove that?
CA: When you do this stuff in the stock market, there you have the truth. If you look to “I’m going to predict stock prices one week out,” or “I’m going to predict market volatility one month out,” our top level internal company objective this year was to beat the VIX in terms of predicting one month-out volatility. We’re actually doing pretty well on these things. We have a blog for that. We call it predictivesignals.com. You can go check it out. It’s very mathematical in its nature. It’s geared towards financial quants and all these guys.
It’s actually much harder to deal with these things that are infrequent. Can you predict how an election is going to go? Can you predict when an event is going to happen that has never happened before? A black swan event. My favorite example is when will Iran have nuclear weapons? Hopefully never. How do you define that? We have no clue. Do they already have them? Will it be 2014, 2015, 2016? We can’t make any pretense about that, but maybe we can help out with the analysis.
BI: Let’s take an Apple product announcement. What do you look at to get that data? [ed: This conversation was recorded the day before Apple unveiled the iPad 2 ]
CA: Let’s say that you work for a competitive mobile phone provider. You’re sitting there saying, “Dammit, these Apple guys win the marketing game. They’re shutting up completely, then they spread rumors, and the world doesn’t listen to anyone else.” Tomorrow the world will probably be more likely to listen to Apple to Libya news.
So what do people know? Tell me about any sort of product releases coming up in 2011. That will look for any hits in our world that will be where we found text that includes “Apple will launch a new iPad on Friday” or “in late November.” There’s been all these things that Apple might delay the product release until November or late September. So we timeline all that stuff for the user. They can sit down and take them apart, drill down into the underlying articles. And we try to score the events so that we give percentages to the stuff that has high credibility and the ones that don’t. So far I would call it manually assigned credibility, but we’re working on automatically assigning credibility on various topics. So if a source has been historically good that way, even if it’s not a simple one answer, we can help out this person who needs to dive in to this area to understand it to get a high-level sense of what the timeline of an Apple product release is like.
Then we can put them next to Android product release events. And give me a timeline of both. And then we can say, “Here’s a gap. Nobody else is launching in that gap. That’s your week.”
BI: The types of input you’re taking in – are these public media sources? Are these reports from financial analysts?
CA: Tens of thousands of sources going higher and higher. Eventually we’ll crawl the Web but for now we’re dealing with media sources. I would say on one end it ranges from Twitter to, on the other end, government filings and media and blogs and all kinds of things. Maybe from a credibility point of view you would put SEC at one end and Twitter on the other. We take, literally, tens of thousands of SEC filings, maybe more, per week. I’m not sure. Literally. The SEC is flooded with information.
BI: Have you read William Gibson’s last book by any chance? [Warning: spoiler coming.] He called the idea of predicting the immediate future “the flow.” And the industrialist, this guy called Bigend who’s been in the last three books, that’s what he’s going after. And he gets it at the end, basically predicting the future 18 minutes from now.
CA: What are his inputs?
BI: Exactly. It’s fiction!
CA: Our premise is sort of that the world knows a lot about the future. You have your own calendar in your phone, all around you. Newspapers contain simplistic calendarial information. There’s ton of this sort of microfuture. The future surrounds us. I gave a presentation and someone tweeted that. Kinda neat. What if we could organize that? It’s not gonna get to 100% in terms of outcome. I have no pretense of that. The human brain is pretty smart. Let’s pull that together.
BI: It seems like it works best when you’ve got very broad interest and a lot of inputs. But it would be very difficult to predict for a specific time or after a specific event. What’s the probability of a catastrophic hurricane flooding New Orleans this hurricane season?
CA: Even something like corporate bankruptcies. For those, people don’t spend time searching for that in Twitter. Things that are close to humans, where there is – it’s a different sort of thing. Unemployment, house, home, things that are close to you.
What’s exciting for us, we think, is that there are all these sorts of people writing about the future, saying, “This might happen.” Just aggregating that. Looking for attention. What companies are gaining attention, be it on Twitter or in SEC filings. Any company sticking out in SEC filings gains attention. Are there things that known experts start talking about? Or do known experts point to any sort of change? There are so many of these things where you can find glimpses of the future. And we’d like to organize all that and figure out ways to make it available. That’s what it all comes down to, and there’s a pretty damn nice opportunity there.