An undated still frame is shown from the film "Margin of Error". A Canadian-made artificial intelligence system called Polly is looking to next month's U.S. presidential election, using public social-media data and algorithms to forecast population behaviour. Polly is profiled in the new documentary "Margin of Error," which premieres Saturday on Ontario's publicly funded network TVO, and across Canada on www.tvo.org and the station's YouTube channel. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Open Door, *MANDATORY CREDIT*

Doc examines what this Canadian-made AI system predicts for the U.S. election

Doc examines what this Canadian-made AI system predicts for the U.S. election

TORONTO — She’s accurately predicted the Brexit vote, the 2016 American presidential outcome, and last year’s federal election in Canada.

Now, a Canadian-made artificial intelligence system called Polly is forecasting next month’s U.S. presidential election, using public social-media data and algorithms.

Polly is profiled in the new documentary “Margin of Error,” which premieres Saturday on Ontario’s publicly funded network TVO, and across Canada on tvo.org and the station’s YouTube channel.

Toronto-based Peter Gombos wrote and directed the doc, which looks at the promise and concern of using forms of AI like Polly to help resolve issues of traditional polling methods in a digital age.

The film profiles Polly’s creator, Ottawa-based market research start-up Advanced Symbolics Inc. (ASI), which has her U.S. presidential predictions on its website, (https://advancedsymbolics.com/us-election/).

The predictions currently update daily and have a high margin of error that will become smaller closer to the Nov. 3 election, but as of Wednesday afternoon, she had Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden with 346 Electoral College votes vs. U.S. President Donald Trump at 192.

Polly also had Biden with 55 per cent of the popular vote vs. Trump at 45 per cent.

“But of course the huge caveat in that, particularly in the U.S., is issues of voter turnout, vote suppression, early voting and discounted ballots,” Gombos said in a phone interview.

“There are so many swing states in the U.S., and the percentages in the swing states are very close, within the margins, like 50-50 or 51-49, plus or minus three per cent. And so it’s all about voter turnout.”

The brainchild of researchers at the University of Ottawa, Polly (short for “politics”) is used by ASI to forecast consumer attitudes, and isn’t contracted out to any other agencies. For election forecasting, she looks at macro behaviours and patterns in the numbers of social media users talking about a political party or a topic, rather than the sentiments that they’re expressing.

“Margin of Error,” produced by Tom Powers, followed the ASI team as it used Polly to forecast the 2019 Canadian federal election as a way to promote their research method. She predicted the Liberals at 155 seats and the Conservatives with 118, which was close to the actual result of 157 Liberal seats and 121 Conservative.

ASI says Polly has also made accurate predictions on several other high-profile votes, whereas the nearly century-old format of traditional polling through phone calls and door knocks has missed the mark on some, including Brexit and the 2016 U.S.

“Once upon a time it was dead easy,” Gombos said of traditional polling, which uses surveys with a small group of a population selected at random to represent the larger whole and predict the opinions of the entire populace.

“People were enthusiastic, they wouldn’t slam their door or hang up their phone, and they’d provide answers. And for the most part, pollsters say it was a really straightforward prediction, and they were quite accurate. But the demographics of Canada, for example, have changed in the last 40 years, technologies have increasingly become mobile, and people have become irritated at answering questions.”

Where polls capture a slice in time from a representative sample of 1,000 people, for instance, AI can scour up-to-the-minute opinions and behaviours from hundreds of thousands of social media users over a longer period and come up with patterns that can’t be observed through traditional polling, said Gombos.

Polly primarily gets data from Twitter, and some critics wonder if she can accurately come up with a representative sample of the greater whole, when the majority of people using that platform skew younger, urban, and already politically motivated, said Gombos.

But ASI counters that Polly tracks algorithms from all of Twitter to identify users who reflect the demographics of each riding, so she can still find a way to balance the representative sample, he added. Polly’s algorithms also apparently make it difficult for bots to pass through.

“And if they do, those bots are part of a larger conversation,” said Gombos, whose other credits include the series “Yukon Gold” and “Cold Water Cowboys.”

“So the conversation has to rise to a certain level to factor into Polly’s predictions.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 14, 2020.

Victoria Ahearn, The Canadian Press

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Chris Scott, owner of The Whistle Stop Cafe, was put in handcuffs after an anti-restriction protest Saturday in the parking lot of the business. (Screenshot via The Whistle Stop Facebook page)
UPDATE: Central Alberta cafe owner arrested after anti-restriction protest

The owner of a central Alberta cafe, which was the site of… Continue reading

Alberta has 1,910 active cases of COVID-19 as of Wednesday. Red Deer is reporting five active cases, with 108 recovered. (File photo)
Red Deer now has 911 active COVID-19 cases

Central zone has 2,917 active cases

Red Deer Regional Hospital Centre's expansion project is still a high priority, says Alberta Infrastructure Minister Prasad Panda. (File photo by Advocate staff)
Red Deer hospital ICU admissions stable, but rising, says surgeon

The Red Deer Regional Hospital Centre’s intensive care unit is in better… Continue reading

Alberta recorded a single-day record of over 57,000 doses of COVID-19 vaccine administered. (Photo courtesy Alberta Health Services Twitter)
Alberta hits daily record of COVID-19 vaccine doses administered

Central zone has administered 111,735 doses of the COVID-19

FILE - A firefighter wears a mask as he drives his truck. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward, File
VIDEO: Flames rip through Edmonton-area seniors complex, but no fatalities

ST. ALBERT, Alta. — Fire has destroyed part of a retirement complex… Continue reading

Dr. Robert Strang, Nova Scotia's chief medical officer of health, is setting off a social media reaction with his calls to stop non essential shopping, such as "buying sandals at Costco", with this photo of his worn sandals, which he published to social media on Saturday, May 8, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Dr. Robert Strang, *MANDATORY CREDIT*
Nova Scotia’s top doctor sparks meme with caution on non-essential shopping

HALIFAX — Nova Scotia’s top doctor has launched a social media meme… Continue reading

Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam speaks during a technical briefing on the COVID pandemic in Canada, in Ottawa on Friday, Jan. 15, 2021. Canada's chief public health officer is reminding Canadians even those who are fully vaccinated are not immune from transmitting the COVID-19. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Tam warns that full vaccination does not equal full protection from COVID-19

Canada’s chief public health officer reminded Canadians on Saturday that even those… Continue reading

Carolina Hurricanes coach Rod Brind'Amour conducts drills during NHL hockey training camp in Morrisville, N.C., Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)
NHL relaxing virus protocols for vaccinated playoff teams

The NHL is relaxing virus protocols for teams that reach a threshold… Continue reading

Canada skip Kerri Einarson directs her teammates against Sweden in a qualification game at the Women's World Curling Championship in Calgary, Alta., Saturday, May 8, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
Canada’s Einarson eliminated at curling worlds after 8-3 loss to Sweden’s Hasselborg

CALGARY — Canada’s Kerri Einarson was eliminated at the world women’s curling… Continue reading

Jennifer Coffman, owner of Truffle Pigs in Field, B.C., poses beside her business sign on Thursday, May 6, 2021, in this handout photo. Her restaurant and lodge have been hit hard by a closure of a section of the Trans-Canada Highway and by the British Columbia government discouraging Alberta residents from visiting during the pandemic. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Jennifer Coffman, *MANDATORY CREDIT*
‘Why we survive’: B.C. boundary towns struggle without Albertans during pandemic

Jennifer Coffman didn’t expect to get hit with a double whammy at… Continue reading

A courtroom at the Edmonton Law Courts building, in Edmonton on Friday, June 28, 2019. The effect of the coronavirus pandemic will have a lasting impact on the Canadian justice system warn a number of legal experts. The Alberta Court of Queen's Bench announced Sunday it would adjourn all scheduled trials across the province for at least 10-weeks limiting hearings to only emergency or urgent matters. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
Edmonton mother found guilty of manslaughter in death of five-year-old girl

EDMONTON — An Edmonton woman was found guilty Friday of manslaughter in… Continue reading

A Statistics Canada 2016 Census mailer sits on the key board of a laptop after arriving in the mail at a residence in Ottawa, May 2, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Statistics Canada sees more demand to fill out census online during pandemic

OTTAWA — Statistics Canada says the response to the census is higher… Continue reading

Travellers, who are not affected by new quarantine rules, arrive at Terminal 3 at Pearson Airport in Toronto, Monday, Feb. 22, 2021. Ottawa will create a new digital platform to help in processing immigration applications more quickly and efficiently after COVID-19 pandemic underscored the need for a faster shift to a digital immigration system, the immigration department said. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn
Ottawa to create new system to tackle delays in processing immigration applications

Ottawa says it will create a new digital platform to help process… Continue reading

Most Read