Monday, March 28

Somebody hacked the buzz

Yahoo! Research Labs
System Unavailable. Thank you for visiting the Tech Buzz Game. The game is temporarily suspended while we conduct system maintenance. Market discrepancies are presently being investigated. Trading will resume as soon as possible.

When do you know your market simulation is really accurate? When someone attempts to fraudulently manipulate it, just like a real market! Yahoo!'s a veteran of this kind of hacking - sources within the company say hackers have targeted Yahoo! Sports fantasy games on several occassions in the past, but this is much more interesting, because the Yahoo! Tech Buzz website wasn't only harmless fun for deskbound sports fans, it was an earnest attempt to predict the success of future technologies using the emerging science of articifical markets.

Yahoo! Tech Buzz is pretty serious stuff, the pet project of Dr. Gary William Flake, Yahoo!'s principal scientist, and Senior Research Scientist Dr. David Pennock (hmmm when I was at Yahoo! it never had a Chief Scientist, so this must be serious, but did they have to hire a guy called "Doctor Flake"?.) It's also a co-development with serious IT research house O'Reilly Media and, a company specialising in the 'opinion markets' software the Tech Buzz experiment uses.

For an opinionated geek like me, Tech Buzz sounded like so much fun, I would give my left mobile phone holster to play. Sign up, be assigned $10,000 in a virtual cash management account, and then buy and sell not just virtual shares in tech companies, but also in individual technologies, markets, brands, and even ideas. Think WiMax is going to be enormous? Buy big. Think Apple is going to finally win back some marketshare in PC sales? Buy again. Think on-demand movies over the internet will be a success? Hit the buy button.

More interestingly, prices in the Tech Buzz game are set by the 'buzz' - the amount of excitement about each stock you're buying and selling. Like any market, the buzz includes the volume and price of shares bought and sold. Unlike other markets, it appears to also factor in the number of people searching on these keywords in Yahoo!'s humungous daily worldwide search traffic.

The theory of opinion markets like these is that they can more accurately predict the future than reading tea leaves. The published research shows that opinion markets have accurately predicted presidential elections, Academy Award winners, and pork belly futures in the past.

In any simulation, the greater the accuracy, the better the results. With greater accuracy, however, will come some of the challenges of the reality you're trying to simulate. For instance, soldiers training in a battle combat simulator will try harder to stay 'alive' if they know they only get one 'life', but you don't get much training if you only stay 'alive' for the first five minutes. Just like the real IT markets the Tech Buzz game is modelled on, somebody's been hacking to improve their position, or the position of their employer, or just to prove it can be hacked.

Looking at it one way, it's an encouraging sign of the accuracy of the Tech Buzz simulation if someone really has successfully hacked it to improve their standing, or to make their company, brand or technology look better in this very public forum. But if your glass is half-empty, then the Yahoo! Tech Buzz game was first hacked only two weeks after it launched, and will be hacked again and again, distorting the underlying opinion market and the final results until either Doctor Flake packs up his bat and ball and goes home, or the winning technologies/brands/memes are declared as "Hacker networks" and "Linux".

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