Who’ll get to Mars first? Oddsmakers favor SpaceX

Mars landing
An artist’s conception shows SpaceX’s BFR rocket landing on Mars. (SpaceX via YouTube)

If sending humans to Mars is a race, which team is favored to win? Bookies give the nod to Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin venture, but it’ll be years before any bet pays off.

David Strauss, an analyst and oddsmaker at MyBookie, says NASA is the underdog and Musk is the favorite.

“Bezos may have the discipline, but Musk has the infrastructure and just the right amount of craziness to make a successful mission happen,” he said today in a news release. “The days of government organizations staging trips to another planet are behind us. I would be surprised if NASA truly makes it back to the moon.”

MyBookie’s betting line gives SpaceX a 75 percent chance of sending humans to Mars first.

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Who takes the prize for Oscar predictions?

Oscar nominees
The favorites for best-picture Oscar include “Lady Bird” (with Saoirse Ronan, upper left), “Get Out” (with Daniel Kaluuya, upper right), “The Shape of Water” (with Sally Hawkins, lower left) and “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” (with Frances McDormand, lower right). (Photos: A24 / IAC, Universal Pictures, Fox Searchlight, Twentieth Century Fox)

Looks like the living, breathing humans — and Unanimous AI — take the statuette for Oscar predictions this year.

The Academy Awards are literally the gold standard when it comes to Hollywood movies, but they’re also a testing ground for a far geekier pursuit: predicting who’ll win the Oscars, based on big data.

Crowdsourcing, artificial intelligence and social-media analytics all come into play, as well as the gut feelings of movie reviewers around the world.

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Take two for ‘Person of the Year’ forecast: #MeToo

Swarm AI
Unanimous AI’s online jury uses graphical magnets to pull the focus of their prediction toward the favored choice — in this case, the #MeToo movement. (Unanimous AI Graphic)

It took more than one try, but Unanimous AI’s crowdsourced hive mind was correct when it picked #MeToo as the likeliest prospect for Time’s “Person of the Year.”

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Why some (but not all) polls were wrong

Daybreak Poll
The USC Dornsife / Los Angeles Times “Daybreak” poll tracked Donald Trump’s ratings (in red) and Hillary Clinton’s ratings (in blue) using a protocol that took the depth of respondents’ support for candidates into account. This shows how the number changed over the final weeks of the campaign. (Credit: L.A. Times)

It may look as if pollsters got the presidential election horribly wrong, considering that Hillary Clinton had been favored over Donald Trump, who ended up winning. But they weren’t as wrong as it looks.

For one thing, Clinton seems assured of winning more of the total popular vote once all the returns are in. It’s a quirk of America’s electoral system that votes are awarded on a state-by-state basis. The founding fathers set up the Electoral College that way by design, to balance the power given to big states (like New York) against smaller states (like Wyoming). That played to Trump’s strength in rural areas.

Because of the Electoral College system, pollsters will have to de-emphasize popular-vote predictions in the future, according to David Rothschild, the economist at Microsoft Research who runs a political prediction market called PredictWise.

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Hillary Clinton slumps, Donald Trump jumps

Clinton and Trump
The odds that Donald Trump will be elected president rose from its slump on the Iowa Electronic Markets, presumably due to reports about Hillary Clinton’s emails. (GeekWire graphic)

How much of a game-changer is the report that the FBI is looking into emails linked to an aide to Hillary Clinton, less than two weeks before the election? It’s a shocker, based on news reports as well as a sharp drop in Clinton’s stock on the Iowa Electronic Markets.

The IEM is one of the few places in the U.S. where traders can legally put down real money on the chances that a candidate will be elected president. It’s been weighing presidential campaigns – and doing at least as well as traditional polls – since 1988.

The market was set up by the University of Iowa’s Tippie College of Business as an educational project to study whether market-based mechanisms could anticipate real-world outcomes in realms outside the business world.

Other political prediction markets, ranging from PredictWise to FiveThirtyEight to Bing, have followed in the IEM’s footsteps. Those markets, however, generally aren’t as quick to reflect sudden changes in how traders see the campaign shaping up.

Before today, the IEM’s traders were assessing Clinton’s chances of election at around 90 percent. After the FBI news broke, those chances plunged to around 68 percent. GOP candidate Donald Trump’s chances rose correspondingly, from 10 to around 32 percent.

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Who’ll win ‘Game of Thrones’? Play the market

Image: Daenerys Targaryen
Emilia Clarke plays Daenerys Targaryen on HBO’s “Game of Thrones.” (Credit: HBO)

She belongs to a political family who used to be in power. She’s leading the odds to take the reins of power again. And she’s a blonde.

No, we’re not talking about Hillary Clinton: The powerful woman in question is Daenerys Targaryen, the platinum-haired dragon queen on “Game of Thrones.”

The next season of the HBO sword-sex-and-sorcery series, based on George R.R. Martin’s novels, begins this weekend. This season, for the first time, the show goes beyond what Martin has written, which means what happens is anyone’s bet.


PredictWise, the prediction market aggregator created by Microsoft Research’s David Rothschild, includes the outlook for “Game of Thrones” alongside its charts for the presidential campaign (which currently looks good for Clinton) and prognostications for hockey’s Stanley Cup (with the Washington Capitals as the top-ranked contender).

As of today, Daenerys is given the best chance of sitting the Iron Throne when the TV series ends, which seems likely to happen in 2018. PredictWise gives her a 28 percent chance, compared with 19 percent for Jon Snow (who is supposed to bedead, dead, dead, dead, dead) and 9 percent for wine-loving Tyrion Lannister (played by Emmy-winning Peter Dinklage).

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Iowa caucuses throw predictions into a tizzy

Image: Ted Cruz and family
Sen. Ted Cruz scores a victory in the Iowa GOP caucuses. (Credit:

The Iowans have spoken, and the GOP presidential caucuses confounded the prediction markets by giving Ted Cruz the edge over Donald Trump.

Trump had been favored by the markets – but when tonight’s results became clear, his stock tumbled to near zero while Cruz’s spiked to the top of the chart. What’s really interesting is what happened to the prognostication for the GOP nomination. The current favorite, according to Predictwise’s aggregation of prediction markets, is neither Trump nor Cruz: It’s Marco Rubio, who put in a strong third-place showing.

On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton was running neck-and-neck with Bernie Sanders in the caucus tally, but the market forecasters were putting their money on Clinton to prevail. Literally.

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Political markets sense disturbance in the force

Image: Rubio and Trump
GOP presidential hopefuls Mario Rubio and Donald Trump tangle at October debate. (Credit: CNBC)

Although Donald Trump has long dominated coverage of the GOP presidential campaign, electoral prediction markets have been favoring Marco Rubio instead. Until now.

The shift in support could be a significant signal, because over the years, prediction markets have chalked up at least as good a record as traditional political polling when it comes to handicapping elections.

The concept, pioneered by the Iowa Electronic Markets, involves letting “traders” buy shares in a given proposition. The proposition may be that the Seahawks will win the Super Bowl, or that Trump will win the GOP nomination.

In a winner-take-all market, the price of a share can rise or fall depending on the demand. If the prediction you’ve invested in comes true, you’re paid a specified amount – say, $1 per share. But if you’re wrong, you get nothing.

It may sound like Vegas betting, but economic researchers use the method to study how the “wisdom of crowds” can affect market movements. The concept has come into play in other settings as well, ranging from anticipating flu outbreaks topredicting whether a Microsoft project will stay on track.

For 20 years, presidential elections have provided valuable test cases for prediction markets. “It really does well in primaries, especially early,” said David Rothschild, an economist at Microsoft Research in New York City.

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