by Jenny McArdle
In the year 12,069 (or Foundation Era -79) Hari Seldon predicted the fall of the Galactic Empire, the ensuing turbulence of the interregnum years, and the rise of the ‘Foundation’, a group of scientific pseudo-religious and merchant rulers modeling Plato’s own ‘philosopher kings’. Seldon did this through the science of psychohistory, a science that used statistics, history, and sociology to predictively model human behavior. However, Seldon did more than just foresee the imminent collapse of the Galactic Empire, he used psychohistory to mold the future to his liking, setting in motion the futures that would support the rise of these scientific ‘philosopher kings’ and eventually the installation of the Second Empire for the good of humanity.
While Hari Seldon’s psychohistory was a literary thread that Issac Asimov used to bridge his science fiction short stories in the Foundation trilogy, the scientific discipline he fictionally created between 1942 and 1950 now seems strangely clairvoyant.
Indeed, the convergence of big data, psychology, and behavior science (i.e. cognitive security) is making psychohistory a reality. Big data has allowed scientists to study billions of human interactions at the individual level. The MIT’s Human Dynamics Laboratory under the guidance of Alex ‘Sandy’ Pentland has discovered that by using computers to analyze mathematical patterns of human interactions, they can explain and predict phenomena—political upsets, flu pandemics, human productive output, financial crashes, among others. While Pentland views cognitive security as a force for future good, he notes that the ability to track, predict, and potentially control human behavior can also be exploited.
Prometheus has long been a symbol of the human quest for scientific knowledge. Prometheus ensured human progress through the gift of fire, but was sentenced to eternal torment by the Olympian Gods for his transgression. Science does at times have overreaching and unintended consequences. Cognitive security can be used as a force for good, but in the wrong hands it can also be egregiously misused. Are we to assume that all our future ‘psychohistorians’ will be motivated for the good of humanity, like Hari Seldon? A brief glance through the history of mankind would beg to differ.