Posted by: Paul Hewitt | April 29, 2009

A Cheaper Alternative to Prediction Markets?

Recently, I came across this article in The Economist that discusses the genius and extraordinary abilities associated with autism.  It was thought provoking.

Genius locus – The Economist, April 16, 2009

In the article, it mentions some of the tasks that autistic people seem to have an uncanny ability to perform.  One of them was cited here:

“It helps them, too, with other tasks savants do famously well—proofreading, for example, and estimating the number of objects in a large group, such as a pile of match sticks.”

The public popularity of prediction markets jumped with the publishing of James Surowiecki’s book on the Wisdom of Crowds.  He introduced the topic by describing how the crowd’s wisdom was far superior to that of any individual at the county fair.  Other examples include guessing the number of jelly beans in a jar.  It seems to me that, if an autistic individual is able to estimate things like the above example, perhaps they might be just as good at estimating other things.  In effect, they are predicting the answer.  If so, maybe we don’t need a crowd, we need just a few – but autistic ones.

Next, the article discusses whether similar types of feats can be “learned” and considered London taxi drivers as a possible example.

“There are, however, examples of people who seem very neurotypical indeed achieving savant-like skills through sheer diligence.  Probably the most famous is that of London taxi drivers, who must master the Knowledge—ie, the location of 25,000 streets, and the quickest ways between them—to qualify for a licence.”

“The prodigious geographical knowledge of the average cabbie is, indeed, savant-like.  But Dr Maguire recently found that it comes at a cost.  Cabbies, on average, are worse than random control subjects and—horror—also worse than bus drivers, at memory tests such as word-pairing.  Surprisingly, that is also true of their general spatial memory. Nothing comes for nothing, it seems, and genius has its price.”

I might add another side-effect of their learning process.  There seems to be a very high correlation between back injuries and being a London taxi driver.  I’ve found this to be used as a convenient excuse for not lifting even the lightest of suitcases when picking up a passenger.

Maybe more accurate predictions are only a fare away!

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