Failed gambler? How about an algorithm that predicts the future

Hopefully an end to '... and you'll never guess what happened next!'


Something for the Weekend Another coffee, please. Yes, I know we're about to start. There is always time for one more coffee. It's good for your brain. Thanks.

Could you hold my cup for a moment? I need to visit the restroom. Yes, I know we're about to start; you told me that already. There is always time for coffee AND a comfort break. Yes, I know the two are related but I don't have time to chat about it. I'm bursting here.

How about I drink the coffee straight away, nip to the WC, and return pronto? Slurp argh that's hot. Thanks, I'll be right back.

While I'm in the loo, could you get me another coffee?

Actually, I'm not convinced that coffee is any better for your brain than it is for my bladder. Studies abound which invariably indicate that moderate coffee-drinking will lower your chances of Parkinson's and dementia but the final paragraphs always include the word "inconclusive." I suppose I'm a coffee-cup-half-full type of person: if there's one thing that nutritional research has shown us time and again, it's that if something is enjoyable, it's bad for your health and you must stop it immediately.

That said, some very smart coffee drinkers at the University of Cincinnati are extracting the carbon from spent coffee grounds to produce electrode coatings for bio-sensors used in neurochemistry. The porous carbon fibers created in this way turn out to be more sensitive than standard carbon coatings in the presence of dopamine – even trapping dopamine molecules momentarily, allowing researchers to carry out faster measurements.

To get the project rolling, the researchers went out and bought lots of coffee so that they would have lots of source material to work on. According to the team leader, they ended up with "more than we will ever need," adding: "My entire lab really loved this project."

I bet they did. I am now checking Indeed every day for job vacancies in research labs. With a bit of luck, I'll find a project that wants to tackle the climate crisis with Victoria sponge cake leftovers.

But hang on, these research boffins in Cincinnati sound pretty smart and they've been drinking coffee by the popcorn-bucket load. Maybe I should start imbibing a bit more rather than less, and drink myself cleverer.

Currently, I can only aspire to cleverness. I have always enjoyed mathematics, even at school, and later tried to keep it going by studying it as a subsidiary subject for my politics degree at university.

The problem is that I am not very good at it. Mathematicians have a knack for formulating complex theoretical descriptions, while I'm still bumbling about trying to remember what subscript N stands for. I am akin to those thespian enthusiasts in a small-town drama society who adore being on stage but cannot act to save their lives.

That doesn't prevent me from appreciating a good play. For example, I love it when physicists come up with wild new mathematical approaches to explain existence. Earlier this year, eggheads at Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden and MIT published a paper explaining how they developed a "simplified" (heh) model to describe quantum gravity.

This raises two monumental questions about our place in the universe. First, how closer are we to learning how and why microscopic quantum mechanical ripples arise? Second, how much coffee did the researchers go through?

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I bet there's an algorithm to determine the optimum coffee consumption. There's an "algorithm" for everything these days.

Just this week, a colleague showed me a business plan for a proposed editorial app project whose entire backroom technology was glibly summarized in four words: "AI algorithm recognizes context." When I asked what this "algorithm" was, they said they would find some IT students to write it as work experience over the next few weeks.

I suspect that one of us does not understand what an algorithm is. If I asked them what this algorithm might look like in its final form, they'd probably say: "Er… brown?"

Another blithe mention of "algorithm" appeared recently in a paper by MIT researchers [PDF] to describe a data analysis tool for identifying trends in time-based data and predicting what will happen next. Luckily, it uses a "simplified" (heh) interface they've called Time Series Predict Database (tspDB) so that all the complex modeling is done behind the scenes, such that even a dimbo like me might be able to draw up a prediction in only a few seconds.

Hang on, did I catch that right? It sounds like they've written an algorithm for predicting the future… and instead of running down to the bookies or buying lottery tickets, they're announcing it to the world. Surely not.

"This is a beautiful concept of actually building prediction functionalities directly into the database," confirms co-author Devavrat Shah. "It has never been done before, and so we want to make sure the world uses it."

Blimey, they DO mean it.

One can imagine how this will be applied in the first instance. My joke about gamblers was well chosen: almost certainly it will be popular in the world of finance and other such crooks. It could be a boon for crypto dealers, if only they could get tspDB to make sense of the loopy historic data. With the out-of-control rollercoaster that is Bitcoin rising and falling in value against the dollar by +10 and -10 percent on a daily basis, this algorithm will have its work cut out for it.

It would be nice if somebody could use it with legally acquired medical big data to help predict – with greater than typical accuracy – an individual's chances of developing disease. Maybe it could analyse retail trends and predict a specific date when flares will definitely come back.

But no, I reckon it will be used as a substitute cephalopod for predicting the group stages of international sporting events. The algorithm will also hopefully enjoy a longer and more fruitful life than Paul the World Cup Octopus, and certainly longer than Rabio, who accurately predicted the result of every game at the last World Cup in Japan before being sold off to make sashimi.

Living in a country in which vast numbers of otherwise sane people not only believe in horoscopes but regularly spend money on visits to tarot readers, I look forward to tspDB disrupting the gullibility market by not spouting bollocks. And while I do not wish to encourage Minority Report scenarios by putting unquestioned faith into its predictions, it would be nice if it could at least tell me if COVID will still be an issue the summer after next.

The big problem is, of course, whether in fact anybody will take any notice of tspDB's predictions. The pandemic was not just predicted but anticipated by international governments, yet they all ignored the warnings. And the only way to know whether they will continue to ignore the warnings is to predict how they will respond to tspDB predictions, which er… predict that, er…

Oh no, I think I have gone cross-eyed. It's too much for my tiny mind to comprehend.

Fetch me another coffee, would you?

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Alistair Dabbs
Alistair Dabbs is a freelance technology tart, juggling tech journalism, training and digital publishing. He wishes he was better at organized thinking and mathematics so that he would be better at writing even simple code that works. He still blames his failed coding attempts on semicolons which, he says, "hate me." More at Autosave is for Wimps and @alidabbs.

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