This book deals with quantitative efforts to predict human behavior. One of the earliest efforts to do that was in World War II. Norbert Wiener, the father of “cybernetics,” began trying to predict the behavior of German airplane pilots in 1940—with the goal of shooting them from the sky. His method was to take as input the trajectory of the plane from its observed motion, consider the pilot’s most likely evasive maneuvers, and predict where the plane would be in the near future so that a fired shell could hit it. Unfortunately, Wiener could predict only one second ahead of a plane’s motion, but 20 seconds of future trajectory were necessary to shoot down a plane.
In Eric Siegel’s book, however, you will learn about a large number of prediction efforts that are much more successful. Computers have gotten a lot faster since Wiener’s day, and we have a lot more data. As a result, banks, retailers, political campaigns, doctors and hospitals, and many more organizations have been quite successful of late at predicting the behavior of particular humans. Their efforts have been helpful at winning customers, elections, and battles with disease.
My view—and Siegel’s, I would guess—is that this predictive activity has generally been good for humankind. In the context of healthcare, crime, and terrorism, it can save lives. In the context of advertising, using predictions is more efficient, and could conceivably save both trees (for direct mail and catalogs) and the time and attention ...