Study: A Supercomputer Could Have Found Osama Bin Laden When the Experts Couldn't

Wednesday, 24 August 2016 - 12:00PM
Wednesday, 24 August 2016 - 12:00PM
Study: A Supercomputer Could Have Found Osama Bin Laden When the Experts Couldn't
Can a supercomputer predict human behavior, Minority Report-style? Back in 2011, a supercomputer was able to pinpoint Osama Bin Laden's location with startling accuracy, at a time when human experts thought he was in an entirely different country.

In April 2011, shortly before Bin Laden was killed in May, most leading experts believed he was hiding in Afghanistan. But when the University of Tennessee's Kalev Leetaru fed news articles up to April 2011 into the Nautilus supercomputer, it was able to correctly predict Osama Bin Laden's location in Pakistan within 200km. Even more, it was able to predict several cultural and political trends, including a populist uprising in Egypt and the overall stability of Saudi Arabia.

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"Recent literature has suggested that computational analysis of large text archives can yield novel insights to the functioning of society, including predicting future economic events," he wrote in his paper. "Applying tone and geographic analysis to a 30–year worldwide news archive, global news tone is found to have forecasted the revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, including the removal of Egyptian President Mubarak, predicted the stability of Saudi Arabia (at least through May 2011), estimated Osama Bin Laden's likely hiding place as a 200–kilometer radius in Northern Pakistan that includes Abbotabad, and offered a new look at the world's cultural affiliations."
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For the study, Leetaru scanned over 100 million news articles into the Nautilus supercomputer from January 1979 to January 2011, the beginning of the Arab Spring. He used various sources, including the US Government's Open Source Center, BBC Monitoring, New York Times' archive since 1945, and a variety of online outlets, and programmed the AI to scan the stories for tone (positive or negative) as well as the major players and their locations. Using its 100 trillion plus interconnections, the supercomputer was able to generate graphs that predict human behavior with an insane level of accuracy, including a graph that included the actual hiding place of Osama Bin Laden (graph seen above).

To be fair, there are several problems with the study, particularly in regards to the computer predicting specific behaviors. The Egyptian uprising, for example, was associated with a sharp downturn in public sentiment, but there were several other difficult times that didn't lead to revolution. So while the program could predict that a revolution was possible, Leetaru was only able to identify the incitement of a revolution in hindsight.

The fact that the study was conducted after Bin Laden was killed may have an effect on the location prediction as well. The data didn't include any articles that came out in the months before he was killed, so theoretically, it would only have the same information that a human expert would have had in January 2011. But still, Leetaru programmed the AI while knowing the outcome, which could have impacted the results. So we're not exactly looking forward to a Minority Report pre-cog AI just yet, but it's safe to say that data mining could be crucial in our intelligence activities in the future.