Tech by VICE

​We Made a Twitter Bot That Predicts the Future

With your help, @TheseFutures will create an atlas of modern speculation.

by Brian Merchant, Claire Evans & Ranjit Bhatnagar
Nov 19 2015, 2:55pm

Art: Koren Shadmi

We're all futurists, really. Speculation is part of life: We all muse, forecast, and daydream about our futures. We make sweeping, generalized predictions and specific, personal projections. We posit scenarios that might never come to pass. We theorize about the ramifications of geopolitical events. We make guesses.

And though most of us produce our own tiny speculations on a daily basis, we tend to consider speculative fiction a professional enterprise—the stuff of Hollywood movies, sci-fi books, and graphic novels. But big budget space operas aren't the sole authority on the future. An idle thought about what your hometown will look like in ten years is an important speculation, too.

So, we're going to try to highlight as many of those smaller-screen predictions as possible. Typically, each week here on Terraform we publish one very detailed, narrative-based speculation. This week we're stepping it up. Instead of a single speculation, we're serving up a potentially infinite number of futures. And we're doing it with what we think is the web's first speculative fiction twitter bot.

With the help of Ranjit Bhatnagar, the weird internet genius behind @Pentametron—a bot that writes provocative sonnets with found tweets in accidental iambic pentameter—we built a Twitter bot that predicts the future, with your help. It's called @TheseFutures.

@TheseFutures does three things: First, and probably most importantly, it scans the twittersphere for thoughtful speculative tweets, and retweets them. So far, it's finding about 10-20 strong tweets that describe the future, one way or another, each day. These tweets include wild imaginations like "In the future, we will all be gelatinous" that are weird and compelling enough to impress world-weary speculative fiction editors, and the more personal, "In 20 years, I hope I…" sort of musings.

Second, we built a database of predictions from famous speculators, from Nostradamus to Ben Franklin to David Byrne, and set the Twitter bot to share a few each day. The results range from quite practical to incomprehensibly weird, and offer a sample of some of history's notable future-dreams.

Finally, the bot will share tweets it assembles at random from word banks of the most common future-related terms, in a form that mimics common predictions. Think [corporation x] will drive [animal y] extinct, or [government agency z] will control the [entity xy], but a little more complex and compelling.

In all, @TheseFutures will share historic ponderings about the future, stream-of-consciousness predictions of the present, and the machine-generated prognostications of a clumsy AI—we'd like to think of it as a peek at the past, present, and future of speculation. It's still an experiment, and though we've been running it in beta for about a month now, it will continue to evolve as we gauge the caliber and interestingness of the materials it shares.

But so far, so good! We've honestly been pleasantly surprised to see how many clever, funny, charming, and poignant speculations people shoot out on the web every day. The historic predictions offer a fine contrast in the feed, and the text generator, which we're still trying to improve, can be surprising and funny in its robotic assemblages. Here's an example of each, taken from the last 24 hours of the bot's future tweetage:

The bot has already captured some deeply personal predictions hinting at individual futures of loneliness and loss, some starry-eyed futurist forecasts about biotechnological advances, and some good jokes about politics, startups, and internet culture.

There have been some fascinating hiccups, too—recycled speculations tweeted out on the regular by spambots, for instance. We've seen "In the future everyone will get 15 minutes of fame and 15 minutes of healthcare" (which isn't a bad tweet!) about a dozen times already. Who knows where that quote came from, but the spammers have it now.

Things should only get weirder from here on out. We plan on following the bot closely over the next three months, tracking the speculations it records and draws in. After that, we aim to study the archived predictions and pull out a representative sample in order to create an interactive timeline of the future, as predicted by the Twitter hivemind.

A great many tweets list specific dates. Others are ballparked. Regardless, we should be able to get a pretty good, fluid idea of where the chattering Twitter classes expect us to be heading. And we might learn a thing or two about why we're so busy speculating in the first place.

Join up—follow these futures, of course, tweet quotes of predictions you'd like to see us add to our database to @TheseFutures, or just tweet a future from your public account. Our bot picks up all kinds of speculations, and if you want to improve the chances that it will find yours, start your tweet with "In the future," and send it off. Should be fun, at least—in the future, we'll know if it worked.