Sunday, May 26, 2024

The Occupational Hazard of Predictive Analytics

Last updated on November 23rd, 2017 at 01:25 pm

This Preface is reprinted with permission of the author, Eric Siegel, from his book, “Predictive Analytics: The Power to Predict Who Will Click, Buy, Lie, or Die,” revised and updated edition (Wiley, January 2016).


Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, but today is a gift. That’s why we call it the present.

— Attributed to A.A. Milne, Bill Keane and Oogway, the wise turtle in Kung Fu Panda

People look at me funny when I tell them what I do. It’s an occupational hazard.

The Information Age suffers from a glaring omission. This claim may surprise many, considering we are actively recording Everything That Happens in the World. Moving beyond history books that document important events, we’ve progressed to systems that log every click, payment, call, crash, crime, and illness. With this in place, you would expect lovers of data to be satisfied, if not spoiled rotten.

But this apparent infinity of information excludes the very events that would be most valuable to know of: things that haven’t happened yet.

Everyone craves the power to see the future; we are collectively obsessed with prediction. We bow to prognostic deities. We empty our pockets for palm readers. We hearken to horoscopes, adore astrology, and feast upon fortune cookies.

But many people who salivate for psychics also spurn science. Their innate response says “yuck”—it’s either too hard to understand or too boring. Or perhaps many believe prediction by its nature is just impossible without supernatural support.

There’s a lighthearted TV show I like premised on this very theme, Psych, in which a sharp–eyed detective—a modern–day, data–driven Sherlock Holmesian hipster—has perfected the art of observation so masterfully, the cops believe his spot–on deductions must be an admission of guilt. The hero gets out of this pickle by conforming to the norm: he simply informs the police he is psychic, thereby managing to stay out of prison and continuing to fight crime. Comedy ensues.

I’ve experienced the same impulse, for example, when receiving the occasional friendly inquiry as to my astrological sign. But, instead of posing as a believer, I turn to humor: “I’m a Scorpio, and Scorpios don’t believe in astrology.”

The more common cocktail party interview asks what I do for a living. I brace myself for eyes glazing over as I carefully enunciate: predictive analytics.

Most people have the luxury of describing their job in a single word: doctor, lawyer, waiter, accountant, or actor. But, for me, describing this largely unknown field hijacks the conversation every time. Any attempt to be succinct falls flat:

I’m a business consultant in technology. They aren’t satisfied and ask, “What kind of technology?”

I make computers predict what people will do. Bewilderment results, accompanied by complete disbelief and a little fear.

I make computers learn from data to predict individual human behavior. Bewilderment, plus nobody wants to talk about data at a party.

I analyze data to find patterns. Eyes glaze over even more; awkward pauses sink amid a sea of abstraction.

I help marketers target which customers will buy or cancel. They sort of get it, but this wildly undersells and pigeonholes the field.

I predict customer behavior, like when Target famously predicted whether you are pregnant. Moonwalking ensues.

So I wrote this book to demonstrate for you why predictive analytics is intuitive, powerful, and awe-inspiring.

I have good news: a little prediction goes a long way. I call this The Prediction Effect, a theme that runs throughout the book. The potency of prediction is pronounced–as long as the predictions are better than guessing. This Effect renders predictive analytics believable. We don’t have to do the impossible and attain true clairvoyance. The story is exciting yet credible: putting odds on the future to lift the fog just a bit off our hazy view of tomorrow means pay dirt. In this way predictive analytics combats financial risk, fortifies healthcare, reduces spam, toughens crime fighting, and boosts sales.

Do you have the heart of a scientist or a businessperson? Do you feel more excited by the very idea of prediction, or by the value it holds for the world?

I was struck by the notion of knowing the unknowable. Prediction seems to defy a Law of Nature: you cannot see the future because it isn’t here yet. We find a work–around by building machines that learn from experience. It’s the regimented discipline of using what we do know—in the form of data—to place increasingly accurate odds on what’s coming next. We blend the best of math and technology, systematically tweaking until our scientific hearts are content to derive a system that peers right through the previously impenetrable barrier between today and tomorrow.

Talk about boldly going where no one has gone before!

Some people are in sales; others are in politics. I’m in prediction, and it’s awesome.


For your copy: Predictive Analytics: The Power to Predict Who Will Click, Buy, Lie, or Die

(and watch for other excerpts coming soon…)


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Eric Siegel
Eric Siegel
Eric Siegel, Ph.D., is the founder of the Predictive Analytics World conference series (cross-sector events), executive editor of The Predictive Analytics Times and a former computer science professor at Columbia University.