Hari Seldon Lives: Revenge of the Original ‘Psychohistorians’

The February 23rd, 2013 issue of The Economist a brief but provocative article on the rapid development of massive data analysis by means of social media, and the potential to develop much better models to discover patterns of predictability—in other word, Isaac Asimov’s concept of psychohistory, as conceived in his Foundation novels.

Sci-Fi junkies nearly to a person would rank Asimov’s Foundation trilogy as one of the seminal works of science fiction. With a flair for “space opera” on a galactic level, Asimov sculpts a story in which science meets social sciences, and the resulting “Seldon Plan” would enable “psychohistory”—the forecast of society’s ups and downs—to steer humanity through and beyond a collapse of galactic civilization. In the course of the story he fleshes out the idea of the “scientist as hero,” later popularized by Kim Stanley Robinson in his Mars trilogy. This brand of hero essentially saves us from ourselves—whether the crisis at hand is a collapse in galactic civilization, or a mere well-organized expansion of human beings to Mars.

Well, if The Economist has captured an emerging scientific process, and if what is past is prologue, we may soon get a version of psychohistory in real time, although it might be a tad more primitive than Hari Seldon’s Plan.

The Economist profiles a number of projects underway that use Big Data to predict social outcomes, ranging from using cell phone records to chart “where” we are at any given time, to using epidemiology to forecast future vectors.

Politics—and we could some serious, big-time help in that arena—is the next frontier for the data crunchers. Boleslaw Szymanski of the Rennsselaer Polytechnic Institute is analyzing the role of “catalytic minorities,” which are groups of only about ten percent of a given population, but can suddenly swing public opinion in their direction.

The authors go on to speculate whether ultimately it might be possible to develop a theory of Society, much in the same manner that physicists are exploring a theory of everything.”  Now we are truly getting in Seldon territory, as our correspondent at The Economist call it. But modeling something as complex as society will not be easy. Our correspondent says:  “Small errors can quickly snowball to produce wildly different outcomes.”

In the Foundation series, the little glitch in the Seldon Plan appears in the form of an individual who has the extrasensory ability to influence peoples’ actions and minds—known as The Mule. He tipped the Seldon Plan off course, driving the story forward into unknown territory. The heroic psychohistorians labor to control for The Mule’s impact on their complex, formula-driven plan for humanity.  In the end (Whew!) they pull it off, and galactic civilization does not fall into a long dark age.

I think research along these lines is quite worthwhile, and in light of the 2012 election season, I can’t help wondering if we are seeing some baby steps in the direction that the Hari Seldons of the future might dare to tread. In the meantime, I’m left with the real-world record of social scientists in the here and now, and how they must “control” for every known factor as they set up models. Perhaps a theory of society is possible to some degree, but it would better overall if we would just behave as told to keep the models.  Somehow I think we will as recalcitrant as ever, to the dismay and disappointment of our current posse of scientific heroes….