Truth is at least as strange as science fiction

You might’ve heard of DARPA’s latest announcement, which has been described as a web site where you can “wager on terrorism”. If you haven’t, here are some links:

This idea isn’t a new one — it’s gone by the name of Idea Futures or Prediction Markets for some time. The general idea is described as…

Our policy-makers and media rely too much on the “expert” advice of a self-interested insider’s club of pundits and big-shot academics. These pundits are rewarded too much for telling good stories, and for supporting each other, rather than for being “right”. Instead, let us create betting markets on most controversial questions, and treat the current market odds as our best expert consensus. The real experts (maybe you), would then be rewarded for their contributions, while clueless pundits would learn to stay away.

The idea behind the “terror futures market” would be to harness the collective knowledge, insight and instincts of as many people as possible and give them a financial incentive to contribute. Viewed this way, it’s kind of like the peer-to-peer software approach: decentralize what would be too costly to maintain or what only a large collective would have (thinkers), and centralize the thing that you need most (ideas).

The idea of tying it in with the Internet isn’t new either: a guy I actually know — Marc Stiegler — wrote about this in his science fiction novel, Earthweb. In it, the entire world places bets on the strategies and weaponry of an invading alien race, and these bets are used to guide a crack team of soldiers sent to stop them.

The problem is that it’s a political hot potato. It’s too close in “feel” to a dead pool, and it runs the risk of annoying friendly and neutral nations and enraging enemy ones (imagine trying to maintain some kind of diplomatic decorum when someone’s betting that you’ll be killed in a bloody revolution in next year).

My bets would be:

  • At least some people in DARPA or other policy analysis think tanks have been playing this sort of game for some time already.
  • The announcement was made to test what the public’s reaction would be (the marketing phrase is “Let’s run it up the flagpole and see who salutes!”).
  • Plan B, should the public react unfavourably, would be to make it private, by-invitation-only and run in secret.

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