Prediction Technology: Helping to Prevent or Solve Problems
Any good business should be solving a problem. If they were able to anticipate events before they would occur, they could do a better job of solving problems. We are providing tools to help them do that.
Sean D. Young, Phd, is a behavioral psychologist and assistant professor with the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). He serves as the executive director of the University of California Institute for Predictive Technology (UCIPT) and the UCLA Center for Digital Behavior (CDB).
BY MELISSA WALKER
Why Prediction Technology? When you began the process did you have in mind all of the facets that you now reach, from crime to finance to health, and more?
In 2006, I was in graduate school at Stanford, and working in technology at NASA and Cisco Systems. I began working on a project at Cisco to study whether we could predict people’s behavior from their social media profiles.
Over the past decade, this work has expanded on how social media can change and improve people’s behaviors, as well as how the increasing volume of social media data can provide information about people, behaviors, and real-world events.
It has been a long process and continues to be, as there is so much data. Even the top companies in the world lack the tools to analyze the data in the way it can be analyzed.
We are building this and refining the process for individuals, organizations, and companies to be able to use.
Has it been a smooth and engaging process to integrate all of the various experts in each field to receive the response and data that your work requires?
It has actually been a lot easier then I thought it would be.
It has been very easy finding people who are interested in participating. The more people that join our group, the more they tell others and the more requests we get for people to participate.
The more difficult task is in taking people with different areas of expertise, scientific languages and interests, and bringing them together to see the higher-level role that everyone plays in the mission of the Institute – and how we’re addressing important problems in the world.
What are some of the key ways that your research assists businesses to know more about human behavior?
In general, we study how to predict things, with the goal of using that information to prevent or solve problems. Any good business should be solving a problem.
If they were able to anticipate events before they would occur, they could do a better job of solving problems. We are providing tools to help them do that.
Take the healthcare business. It takes a long time for health care organizations to gather and review data on health, like disease outbreaks, or use of services.
We are providing tools that mine social data that could give them information sooner to act on and address their problems.
What are some of the impacts that your Institute and Center have made in the fields of health and medicine, such as with the data collected in HIV incidence?
We have developed a tool that can look at social media use to determine whether people are engaging in behaviors that put them at risk for HIV. Our studies suggest that this tool can be used to predict outbreaks of HIV. We have applied these methods to other areas of health and disease, like drug abuse.
What have you learned from founding, running, and collaborating with your partners? And have there been any surprises?
I’m surprised, on a daily basis, with how much help people offer, and how excited they are to join with us.
I know we’re solving important problems and I’m passionate about our approach, but I’m constantly amazed how quickly interest in and awareness of what we’re doing is growing.
What is your advice for someone who is uncertain about how to open a new frontier as you have by combining your background and studies?
Find a problem to solve, whether it’s a problem in the world or a problem within yourself. Don’t think too far ahead, and don’t worry about solving the problem quickly.
Do one thing tomorrow that will get you closer to solving it and will make you feel good for accomplishing that thing. Follow that plan every day. Eventually things will come together.
They might not come together the way you initially planned, but things make a lot more sense looking backward if every day you’re accomplishing something you planned to do to solve a problem.
What’s next? In 5 or 10 years how do you think your predictions could affect behavior and make a difference in life and work?
I take one day at a time. This field is moving way too fast to know where we’ll be in 10 years. I can’t just focus on the field of prediction technology.
Because we’re solving problems, I’d have to be aware of other new important problems that will come up in the next 10 days, because we’ll adjust our direction to address those problems.
Our work is constantly changing and that’s what makes it exciting.
Who is your impact maker? Why?
I have way too many, but I’d say my parents. They have been the strongest influence on me being who I am and having the values that I do. They always supported us to do whatever we wanted to do, showed us the importance of helping others, and encouraged us to have an impact in the world every day.
UCIPT was founded in 2015 after winning the University of California President’s Research Catalyst Award. There are currently faculty leaders at four campuses: UCLA, UC San Diego, UC Santa Cruz, and UC Irvine. UCLA is the hosting institution, with Dr. Sean Young of the UCLA David Geffen School of Medicine serving as Executive Director.
Dr. Sean Young founded the UCLA Center for Digital Behavior to bring together researchers and experts from a diverse range of fields, including medicine, business, policy, entrepreneurship and more, across UCLA and beyond.
Photograph and graphic courtesy UCLA and Dr. Young.