Frog's-eye view of the campaign

Mark Vernon
Sunday 23 October 2011 08:06

While the general election will be the first to move on to the information superhighway, both Labour and the Conservatives are already cruising in the fast lane with their instant rebuttal computer systems.

Just days before the election was announced, there was shock and horror in the House when a Labour MP read a bleeper message at the dispatch box, beamed from the Millbank Tower media headquarters. And now that the real war is under way, it is rumoured that for all the simplicity of the soapbox, John Major will be wired and live back to Central Office - if not quite being fed the lines, then at least able to grab a few more statistics. But whether it be in Westminster Central or Inverness East, there is one technology online - Excalibur.

The origins of instant rebuttal go back to the United States and the 1992 presidential election. The technology hit the headlines when, the morning after a televised debate between Al Gore and Dan Quayle, the Democratics published a 14-page list of factual errors that Quayle was alleged to have made. This document drew on more than 70 separate sources from a variety of media.

Five years on, it was the Democrats who advised Labour on the installation of Excalibur, which has been running for more than 18 months. The Conservatives soon followed with an identical, if more extensive, solution. Like sparring cousins, the two databases are now pitched against each other in the race for Number 10.

Behind the drama lies a bizarre tale of data management. Have you ever seen a frog catch a fly? Maybe. Have you ever wondered how a frog catches a fly? Probably not. But James Dowe III did. And from that he developed the core technology that lies at the heart of Excalibur's ability to sort through millions of documents in super quick time and with remarkable flexibility.

He modelled a frog's-eye view of the world, analysing the patterns a frog sees when a fly buzzes by. The key concept is fuzziness. The frog must be able to recognise its prey from an infinite number of perspectives. Dowe compared this with the way a computer "sees" the world and the information that flies through it. An algorithmic representation of the frog's data processing was derived, and from that Excalibur was born.

The technology is called Adaptive Pattern Recognition Processing, and is able to select the right target documents even when the user initiates a search by word meaning or semantic expansion. Further, the system can look through all the documents available to it, and can be "taught" to look for antonyms, synonyms and related or contrasting terms contained therein.

For the political parties, this means that a story released by one in the morning can be turned to the other's advantage - rebutted - by lunchtime. A direct contradiction from the mouth of the same politician might be found, or a more sophisticated selection of material be built up, the weight of which renders the original comment redundant.

Whatever your feelings about the fast pace of the media cycle and its effects upon the democratic process, the story of Excalibur and the frog gives a whole new meaning to "green politics".

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