Margin of Error


A Canadian named Polly is something of a fortune teller. 2016 was a good year for her predictions. She accurately predicted the results of the Brexit vote as well as the 2016 American presidential elections. She also got it right for 2019's federal election in Canada and, most recently, the 2020 American presidential elections.

But Polly doesn't claim to be just a modern-day political Nostradamus. She is more of a pollster or someone who conducts, as well as analyzes, opinion polls. However, in the history of election pollsters, Polly might prove to be the most successful of them all.

Polly - short for politics - is not a human being. She is a Canadian-made artificial intelligence system. She is the brainchild of an intrepid team of researchers from Ottawa-based startup Advanced Symbolics Inc. (ASI). They currently use Polly to forecast consumer attitudes. However, ASI saw the value of exposing Polly to the world of politics as well, and so far, she has proved to be relevant and deadly accurate.

So how does Polly work? She uses a combination of algorithms and statistical methods to predict the outcome of future events. She also mines data from social media, in addition to other data sources. Her algorithms can also consider other factors such as demographics, which make her predictions more accurate than traditional polls or other predictive models.

Back in the day, traditional polling was considered straightforward, easy and accurate, using 100+ years old methods. These include surveys, phone calls, door-to-door visits, informal polling, town hall meetings and opinion gathering. A small group of the population was usually randomly selected to represent the opinions of the entire populace. These chosen respondents were happy, polite and even enthusiastic to participate in the whole process, providing concrete answers that contributed to the conversation.

However, over the last 30 to 40 years, there have been many changes globally - especially in the population's demographics and significant technological advances. Tech is now highly mobile, and people have become less trusting and irritated at engaging with pollsters, let alone answering their questions.

Today, people spend inordinate amounts of time on social media, and it is where we get information, share opinions and have conversations about national and political issues. It is a treasure trove of data regarding people's feelings, habits and, of course, preferences. An AI system like Polly is valuable in this case because she can extract meaningful information from the random noise that is out there.

The benefits we receive from AI forms like Polly also present risks. Critics point out she can't accurately generate a representative sample of the greater whole via social media platforms since they are already skewed to younger, urban, and politically engaged users. There are also concerns that those in power could use Polly to mislead the population.

Though not a perfect system - yet - Polly - and AI generally holds great promise for how we can accurately predict human behavior.

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