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Microsoft wants you to help predict the future

Microsoft wants you to help predict the future

One of the better ways to evaluate predictions is to "cheat"

Microsoft has begun crowdsourcing its prediction abilities with the Microsoft Prediction Lab, a sort of online betting parlor for everything from political races to the US military presence overseas.

But what the site would also love to have, it appears, is all sorts of otherwise personal data, such as the length of your commute, your take on how liberal the Supreme Court is, and your stance on abortion.

For the past several months, Microsoft has begun using the data it collects to try and make predictions on sporting matches, such as the World Cup, NFL games, and even the outcome of the Scottish referendum on independence. While the collection and prediction process helps Microsoft improve its prediction algorithms for Cortana and other services powered by Bing, the high-profile predictions has also raised awareness of Bing, possibly luring customers away from Google's search engine.

Microsoft has said previously that it relies on a number of different sources for its predictions, including historical win-loss percentages for sports scores. But one of the better ways to evaluate predictions is to "cheat": to base a predicted outcome on the informed opinions of men and women who have a stake in the game--in other words, who have bet on them. Sites like PaddyPower allow users to bet real money on outcomes such as the winner of the Eurovision song contest.

And by encouraging users to vote again and again, Microsoft can build up a model of how the same voters are adjusting their opinions over time.

"The polls track the sentiment of the people who are answering the poll at the time," Microsoft researcher David Rothschild said recently. "My forecast predicts what will happen on Election Day. Clearly, the sentiment of the people at the time of the polls is a critical component on any forecast of Election Day, but not the only one."

"Not only did we match the accuracy of major polling companies," Rothschild added, "but we also provided a lot of insight that they weren't able to get, through the fact that we had people coming back again and again."

How it works

There are two aspects to the site: topics that you can "bet" virtual points on, such as House and Senate races, and polls that you can answer on a variety of subjects. Unlike Bing Rewards or the Xbox platform, so far the points wagered are meaningless, and are used simply for bragging rights.

The "challenges"  (see image, top) which you can bet on are somewhat limited at the moment: the front page lists three weekly questions: will President Obama announce a new attorney general nominee before Oct. 5; will the number of states offering gay marriage increase by then, and will the United States have active combat soldiers in Syria by the same date. For each topic, you can wager 100 of your virtual points. It's not a straight-up bet; you actually score more points if you bet against the more popular outcome--and get it right, of course.

But the topics that the separate "polls" cover are far more varied. And that's the rabbit hole you may not want go down.

Google, for example, still runs a low-profile Google Opinion Rewards app that will pay you about $1 per week in Google Play credit for answering questions about site logos, car purchasing plans, and more. But the first questions I was asked involved my personal income and political preferences, prompting a quick uninstallation. Microsoft seems to want similar information, but for free--note that you'll have to input your name and address just to sign up. (Microsoft says it doesn't keep your physical address, but uses it to determine which Congressional races to ask you about.)

All that information could be used to create an extremely detailed personal profile of you, which Microsoft could then present to advertisers. If this doesn't bother you--for example, if you're the type of person who prefers relevant, personalized advertising as opposed to completely useless ads, then you may want to provide this information. Otherwise, keep in mind that Microsoft's research game may cost you over the long haul.

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