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In FIFA World Cup, Microsoft’s Cortana Flaunts Predictive Capabilities


In western Germany four summers ago, the now-legendary Paul the Octopus acquired international fame by correctly predicting the outcomes of six consecutive FIFA World Cup matches involving the German national team. After concluding his prophetic career with foreseeing Spain’s over the Netherlands in the World Cup final, some called Paul the Octopus an animal-oracle, so astonishing were his prescient faculties.

In the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, Microsoft decided to take a crack at predicting match outcomes. Cortana – Microsoft’s version of Siri (named after the artificial intelligence personality from the popular gaming series Halo) – correctly predicted the outcome of every game in the tournament’s round of 16, and the personal assistant maintained its perfect record in the quarterfinals – identifying each victorious team before the matches even began.

While Paul’s predictions were possible (however unlikely) products of the laws of probability, Cortana’s predictions are not simply unlikely outcomes. As part of the Microsoft team explained in a Bing blog post, the user interface calculated likelihoods of victory based on a variety of inputs – including previous records, margins of victory (adjusting for home field advantage of course), proximity to teams’ home countries, playing surfaces, weather conditions, and more. Then the interface allocated different weights to different inputs and voilà – twelve correct predictions.

These World Cup predictions – which admittedly do not have dramatic consequences for most of us – demonstrate the impressive predictive capabilities of modern technologies, which will likely affect all of us. Imagine the widespread use of similar algorithms to prevent traffic jams or predict incidents of crime. Although personal assistants cannot yet predict the future with certainty, successfully estimating probabilities can result in beneficial and significant contributions to society – like safer roads, better commutes, and less crime.

These World Cup predictions are fun and interesting, but their accuracy says a great deal about the future of predictive technologies.

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More Stories By Bob Gourley

Bob Gourley, former CTO of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), is Founder and CTO of Crucial Point LLC, a technology research and advisory firm providing fact based technology reviews in support of venture capital, private equity and emerging technology firms. He has extensive industry experience in intelligence and security and was awarded an intelligence community meritorious achievement award by AFCEA in 2008, and has also been recognized as an Infoworld Top 25 CTO and as one of the most fascinating communicators in Government IT by GovFresh.