Over at the Economist, they're celebrating the rise of psychohistory from Isaac Asimov's Foundation series. Psychohistory is a possibly soon-to-be-real discipline that allows researchers to study the development of societies using science — in essence, it's a kind of social scientific futurism. And now, a few researchers who spoke at the American Association for the Advancement of Science conference in Boston last week, suggest that psychohistory is no longer science fiction:

Song Chaoming, for instance, is a researcher at Northeastern University in Boston. He is a physicist, but he moonlights as a social scientist. With that hat on he has devised an algorithm which can look at someone's mobile-phone records and predict with an average of 93% accuracy where that person is at any moment of any day. Given most people's regular habits (sleep, commute, work, commute, sleep), this might not seem too hard. What is impressive is that his accuracy was never lower than 80% for any of the 50,000 people he looked at.

Alessandro Vespignani, one of Dr Song's colleagues at Northeastern, discussed what might be done with such knowledge. Dr Vespignani, another moonlighting physicist, studies epidemiology. He and his team have created a program called GLEAM (Global Epidemic and Mobility Model) that divides the world into hundreds of thousands of squares. It models travel patterns between these squares (busy roads, flight paths and so on) using equations based on data as various as international air links and school holidays.

The result is impressive. In 2009, for example, there was an outbreak of a strain of influenza called H1N1. GLEAM mimicked what actually happened with great fidelity. In most countries it calculated to within a week when the number of new infections peaked. In no case was the calculation out by more than a fortnight.

Read the rest over at The Economist