Posted April 30, 2009 9:27 am by with 6 comments

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images1John Connor would be relieved to learn that we don’t yet have to worry about our super-computers rising up against us–apparently, they’re still only as smart as the humans operating them.

Case in point, Wired reports that despite the thousands of computers at Google’s disposal–and over 10 years of data analysis–it wasn’t able to identify an increasing trend in searches that suggested the Swine Flu outbreak was beginning.

…Google Flu Trends team, which aggregates and analyzes search queries to estimate how many people are sick, wasn’t watching Mexican flu data until after the outbreak had already begun. That highlights the problem with tech-heavy disease-detection systems: Often, we don’t know what internet data to look at until after a problem starts.

The chart below shows the up tick in “flu” related searches happened over a number of days in April–which you would think would be long enough for a super-computer to recognize a trend, right?

Unfortunately, this reminds me of the 9/11 attack. I seem to recall that our intelligence agencies where able to piece together data after the fact, but didn’t actually see it coming.

  • Not sure if that is correct. I bet the flu trend always goes up that time of the year. Coming into Winter people just tend to get more colds or feel like they have the flu.

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  • Hi Andy. It is not because computers failed to predict, it is because as you mentioned, they usually find it easier to bring the pieces together after disaster strikes. This is mainly because, some people higher then you and me benefits from these situations, so they choose to ignore. I know it sounds sick, but that is the only way they can fill their pockets.

  • @Jaan – don’t look at the Jan/Feb spike–that’s the winter flu season–see the small bump in April.

    @InternetHowBlog – what we need is a computer to tell the human operator, “Dave, you should take a look at this data…” 🙂

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  • I think it is unreliable to use Google to track the flu. Using spikes or numbers of searches to track flu assumes that people are using the internet search to query about the flu or send emails, etc. But computers and phone lines and cell towers are more common in urban areas, and among the affluent. Much of Mexico is a 3rd world country, and in the rural areas cell phones are common but not internet access, except through cyber cafes. The flaw in much of Google’s strategy is that every has web access; well, not everyone — most urban rich people, perhaps, but having lived in rural Mexico, that is not the case.

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