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Science of Crystal Ball Gazing

By Shafi Rahman

clair•voy•ance /kle(ə)rˈvoiəns/
Noun: Ability to perceive matters beyond the range of ordinary perception
- Merriam-Webster Dictionary
When was the last time you wished you knew what was going on in someone’s mind or that you could foretell future? Over the centuries and across the cultures, the ability to mind read and predict the future has held promises of untold riches. It is easy to see why this would matter to even an average Joe. For example, imagine you own a small electronic retail shop and you could know which individuals in the neighborhood are thinking of buying a new large screen television. What would you do with such information?
Is it possible that a soothsayer or a crystal ball gazer could actually gain insight into someone's thoughts or predict future? To a rationalist like me, the very hypothesis is preposterous. Yet I think a lot of these clairvoyants had excellent insight into human nature, and were keen observers of the interplay between natural events and human actions. They depended on these skills to arrive at facts, which to a normal person appeared to be akin to mind reading. In fact, this is exactly what we, the analytic scientists, do for our living.
To get a peek inside someone's mind, just like a clairvoyant, we need to observe keenly. We do this by collecting data from different domains representing a vast range of events for millions of individuals. The wider the spread of the data, the more insight we potentially gain. Once the data has been collected, we process it to glean relevant information while eliminating what we call noise. This, in technical parlance, is called feature extraction and takes us one step closer towards gaining insight into an individual's mind. Over the last few years, with our growing expertise in processing Big Data, this part has only become easier.
Once the raw data has been converted to features, we need to translate this into causality relationships. In simple terms, this means we identify interplay between various events and actions. It is the ability to do this that allows us to predict the future. Using expertise with various machine learning tools, we can translate features extracted from trillions of events into cause and effect relationships. In essence, we end up creating a mathematical model of human behavior, which can accurately predict what any given individual would do in foreseeable future. These predictions have such accuracy that they seem like modern day crystal ball gazing.
Now, we circle back to the question posed in the beginning of this blog. What would a business do with the information gained about a potential customer's immediate future needs? This brings me to the last piece in the jigsaw puzzle – the value of the domain expertise. It is domain expertise which then allows us to translate the insight gained into individuals' minds to actionable business decisions and gain pecuniary benefits.

Retail marketers, for instance, would design various business strategies for targeted marketing intervention, in effect creating a meaningful one-to-one dialogue between the retailer and customer on an ongoing basis. This leads to higher sales for the retailer, while passing on the direct merchandise discount dollars to the right individuals - a win-win for all.

Lo and behold the modern-day clairvoyants!

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