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Microsoft is trying to predict the future, and so far it's succeeding

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Back in June, Microsoft gave Windows Phone's personal assistant the ability to make predictions on World Cup games. It started off as a fun little novelty — the AI inside your phone is making a guess! — but it quickly became a lot more than that: the assistant, Cortana, was actually predicting the outcomes correctly. It ended up nailing all 15 of the knockout games.

The lab turns polling into a game

That's because Cortana's data was coming from Microsoft's own research arm, and Microsoft is now looking to invest more heavily in its ability to predict the future. This week it's opening the Microsoft Prediction Lab, which includes a website that conducts polling that's meant to predict the upcoming US congressional and gubernatorial races. However, Microsoft isn't using polling in the traditional sense. Rather than getting a diverse sample of voting opinions and extrapolating from there, Microsoft is instead getting whatever respondents it can and is primarily interested in who they think is going to win.

It's a strange practice, but it's apparently working. Microsoft says that one of its researchers used this method on the Scottish independence vote earlier this month, and rather than seeing a tossup, its researcher found an 84 percent chance of a "no" vote. The general idea is that rather than getting data from one specific person, Microsoft is instead gathering data from that person in addition to everyone they've spoken with.

There's no guarantee that this method will continue to be such a winning formula, but Microsoft is ready to find out. Right now, the Prediction Lab is encouraging people to offer up their predictions by turning the entire thing into a game. You get a certain number of points, and you're able to wager a number of them that different events will happen (such as a specific candidate winning). While that sounds like a fairly boring game, this isn't the last thing we'll see from the site. The lab wants to collect data quickly and try a lot of different ideas out, so you may see something else there in the future. And if Cortana's predictions keep being right, you may just see other polling labs pick up on Microsoft's unconventional style down the road.