Guest post: Googling the future

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This is a guest post by Nick Lewis, a copywriter and SEO analyst for Brighton web design agency Bozboz and sister company Search Optimist.

Real time is the buzz in search at the moment. As exciting and interesting as that is, to my mind, something much more interesting is happening at Google. Certain moves made lately suggest they are moving beyond the present and encapsulating the full scope of the past and the future too.

Google Timeline

Although having been around for a while, Google Timeline is a very little known feature. It allows you to search for any topic and see results ordered in chronological order of historical reference. For example, here are the results for ‘fishing’:

The timeline then allows you to drill down further to each date range. Although not exactly a perfect system for discovering when fishing was first practised, it certainly is a quick way to get an idea of how long something has been around and to find out more about a particular topic at a particular time.

Naturally, the graph showing numbers of mentions for particular date ranges isn’t particularly useful (of course there will always be more mentions in recent history: the rise of literacy and the printing press dictate this), it is still an interesting tool for mapping the past in specific niches.

Recorded Future

So far we’ve seen that Google can be used to map the past, and we know that real time search allows you to track the present. But what about the future?

Google Ventures recently invested in a Cambridge, Mass start up called Recorded Future. Roughly speaking, the company monitors mentions and activity on the internet in order to collect data on any topic, identify trends and extrapolate future strategies and events likely to emerge from these trends.

That’s right: Google invested in a company that predicts the future.

It’s an old idea, essentially adapting new technology to game theory (which was used to predict exactly how to kill the most Russians with the fewest nuclear warheads in the Cold War), but one that still retains credibility. Aside from Recorded Future, IBM have developed a system known as CRUSH (Criminal Reduction Utilising Statistical History) to help police forces allocate resources most effectively by predicting where crimes are most likely to happen next, based on data of past crimes.

One step away from Minority Report perhaps. But that’s a different post altogether.

Although these sorts of models will never be infallible (their results are inferences at best) as anyone versed in game theory knows, the more data plugged in to the model, the more accurate it is likely to be. And who has more data, and more access to data than Google?

Four Dimensional Maps and Google Future Search

So, with Google Timeline you can search history, with real time search you can see what’s happening now, and with Recorded Future, you can, to a limited extent, look into the future.

Although the futures technology is still very much in its infancy, and will almost certainly remain largely inaccurate, Google has never been one to shy away from features for fun. Am I the only one that thinks we might be seeing a ‘Future’ button down the left hand side of Google at some point?

What I’d really like to see though is a Four Dimensional Google Maps. You can already view historical images using Google Earth, as explained in this video:

Imagine another slider on Google Maps with the present in the middle, the past to the left and the future to the right. Find your house and see how likely it is to still be there in the future.

Of course, the processing power required to analyse the enormous amounts of data required to make such predictions with any degree of accuracy, and so many of them at once, is still a long way off. But with new developments in quantum computing happening all the time, and Google’s unprecedented and unparalleled access to data: is it really so far fetched?

  • Mattias Tyrberg

    “Google recently acquired a Cambridge, Mass start up called Recorded Future. ”
    What I know is that they got investment from VCs and one of them is Google Ventures.

    Either way predictive analysis of text is very interesting and a growing field. For those who are interested in this (like building your own services on text analysis) please check out Saplo API ( ).

    Mattias Tyrberg
    Founder Saplo

    • Steve O'Hear

      You are absolutely right that it’s an investment not an acquisition. Post updated, thanks.

  • Tommyboy

    Nice article Nick!
    Reminds me of the work of the futurists in the US in the 60s. They were motivated by RANDs clairvoyant defense projects (which you mentioned) to use similar data sets and algorithims to make predictions about technological advances and even social trends. The problem with the original, the futurist and the modern versions of this kind of data harvesting is that it mines only cold stats, it has no room for chaos & irrationality and as such can only have a limited view of future possibilities which are, by their very nature, mired in chaos (just ask a physicist).
    Still, it seems it’s uses in crisis management could be potentially huge if recent trend analysis projects in Haiti are anything to go by.
    Maybe somethingFEMA could look into, they might end up being an effective agency :)

  • Daoud

    Interesting… but game theory? What on earth has this got to do with game theory?

    • Nick

      It’s related to game theory because the methodologies are broadly the same. Define a situation, plug any data you can into it, and extrapolate the likely outcome.

      Game theory was initially used to determine the most rational outcome of any given situation, but as with the RAND projects quickly developed to be the basis of predictions of likely outcomes i.e. who would ‘win’ in various configurations of nuclear war (no one) and the most efficient way of killing Russians.

      The techniques used now are little different and still seem to suffer from the problems Tommyboy points out – they can’t take into account irrationality or chaos. Having said that, the more data you put in, the more accurate your outcomes are likely to be: just as true now as it was then, but now we have easier access to far more data.

      • Daoud

        True, but by that argument, you could say it’s related to least squares regression… In fact I suspect the techniques they use are more related to traditional statistics than to game theory.

      • Nick

        Fair point and you may well be right, you’re obviously better versed in these areas than myself :)

  • Guest post: Googling the future |

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  • J. Andrew Rogers

    This kind of technology is cool but tractable and general prediction that scales to distributed systems requires simultaneously solving several open questions in theoretical computer science and mathematics. Let’s not over-extrapolate; there is plenty of really interesting possibilities for narrow applications.

    Of course, they could actually have solved several of these problems simultaneously…

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  • steroids

    google has come up with some amazing detours from plain old search.

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