Innovation

TechRepublic's 'swarm AI' predicts the Preakness

Using Unanimous A.I.'s UNU platform, TechRepublic assembled a 'swarm' to predict Saturday's Preakness Stakes, after swarm AI successfully picked the top finishers of the Kentucky Derby.

Image: iStock/marlenka

Can AI see into the future? If you believe in Unanimous A.I., the answer may be "yes."

The company's software platform, UNU, uses an artificial "swarm" that capitalizes on the power of group intelligence. The human "swarm" gathers online, in real time, to make a prediction.

When making guesses about future outcomes — Which horse will win the Kentucky Derby? Who will win an Oscar for best male lead? — traditional methods like polls, crowdsourcing, prediction markets, or expert opinions are still the go-to source for answers.

But, maybe, they shouldn't be.

Unanimous A.I.'s algorithm, based around how natural swarms of animals come to collective decisions, has been remarkably accurate in predicting the outcome of events — and has proven to be a better bet than relying on the traditional methods.

SEE: How 'artificial swarm intelligence' uses people to make better predictions than experts

On the first Saturday in May, after being challenged by TechRepublic, Unanimous A.I.'s swarm predicted the superfecta (the horses that would place 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th) for the Kentucky Derby.

"We were reluctant to take on this challenge," says David Baltaxe, Chief Information Officer at Unanimous A.I.. "Nobody here knows anything about horse racing, and it's notorious for being highly unpredictable."

But the 20 members of the swarm came together and nailed the superfecta, beating the 540-1 odds, and earning some readers thousands of dollars.

Jeff Peltier didn't know much about betting on horses. Last year, he said, he bet on the Kentucky Derby by picking exotic jockey names. This year, though, was different. "I was looking on the internet while making the voyage to Churchill Downs," Peltier said, "and I came across the TechRepublic article."

"We decided that this was the most logical bet to place," he said. So Peltier and his four friends each put down $10 on the predictions.

The payout? $27,105.

Not only did Peltier win, but after I wrote the article I personally wagered a $1 superfecta box (total: $24) and came away with $542.10. And the CEO of Unanimous A.I., Louis Rosenberg, put down $20 in bets and won nearly $11,000.

Given the success of Unanimous A.I.'s Derby swarm, the team at TechRepublic (with the help of Unanimous A.I.) decided to experiment with the software for ourselves. We assembled our own "swarm" — a group of 20 volunteers who claimed to have some knowledge of horse racing.

This group was not scientifically formed, and many were from Louisville — including TechRepublic's Editor in Chief Jason Hiner, and Managing Editor, Bill Detwiler. The swarm gathered online on Thursday afternoon to decide the superfecta for the second leg of horse racing's Triple Crown, the Preakness Stakes, which will be held on Saturday at the Pimlico Race Course in Maryland.

detwilerhinerswarmai052016.jpg
TechRepublic's Bill Detwiler (top panel) and Jason Hiner
Image: Hope Reese/TechRepublic

The group was small. Twenty people had agreed to participate, but only six showed up online for the first prediction. Here are the results:

  • WIN: Nyquist
  • PLACE: Exaggerator
  • SHOW: Stradivari
  • 4th: Collected
  • 5th: Cherry Wine

Then, our swarm predicted the results, assuming rain — which there is a high likelihood of at the race on Saturday and can definitely affect the way some horses run. The group did, however, change — one person left, and three others joined, for a total of eight participants. Here are their predictions for a wet track:

  • WIN: Nyquist
  • PLACE: Exaggerator
  • SHOW: Collected
  • 4th: Stradivari
  • 5th: Cherry Wine

So the new group switched third and fourth places. But Rosenberg said that there's another critical piece — the level of confidence in the answers. This group nearly put Collected in fifth place, not third.

"This suggests a great deal of uncertainty among the 3rd, 4th, and 5th place finishers," said Rosenberg. "We also saw a fair amount of support in the swarm for Uncle Lino as a possible 4th place finisher."

Given the small group and the low level of confidence, Unanimous A.I. is cautions about making any strong prediction. However, based on the group's performance, they predict that the following trifectas may be likely, with a preference for the first trifecta:

  1. Nyquist - Exaggerator - Stradivari
  2. Nyquist - Exaggerator - Collected
  3. Nyquist - Exaggerator - Cherry Wine
  4. Nyquist - Exaggerator - Uncle Lino

Still, Rosenberg cautions that these are "high risk predictions. Exaggerator could even upset Nyquist, making all four combinations losers," he said.

The Preakness swarm is a unique experiment — what Rosenberg calls a "self-serve approach to A.I." Unanimous A.I. had not done this, and are unsure about the confidence in the results.

"This is a little bit of uncharted waters for us," said Rosenberg, "but that's good. We are very curious to see if a third party can pull together a group on your own, and get results that beat the odds."

"It's important to keep in mind that UNU is not psychic," said Rosenberg. "All that UNU does is make better decisions than the individuals could make on their own, or by the betting market. Even if the real odds were 5 to 1, not 540 to 1 (which is an astonishing improvement) you only win that bet once every 5 times. Anyone who puts money down needs to know it's still a significant risk."

Unanimous A.I. recorded a video of the swarm's full set of predictions. Check out the 90 second video.

The swarm's conviction is not as strong as the group that predicted the Derby. Still, I have decided to place my own wagers: a $1 trifecta box on each of the four combinations ($6 each; $24 total); and a $10 straight superfecta on Nyquist, Exaggerator, Collected, and Stradivari. Total: $34. Have your own predictions? Let us know in the comments.

Disclaimer: The Preakness prediction is an experiment, and TechRepublic does not encourage gambling. If you do decide to bet on the Preakness, please check your state gambling regulations first.

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About Hope Reese

Hope Reese is a Staff Writer for TechRepublic. She covers the intersection of technology and society, examining the people and ideas that transform how we live today.

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