The Michael Keston lecture series kicks off with Dr. Jason Matheny of IARPA

September 6, 2016 By: Mahta Emrani

Imagine a world where one could anticipate future events in order to proactively act upon them. What if it were possible to detect a disease outbreak, a terrorist attack, civil unrest, or cultural and economic shifts before they happened?

From left to right: (1) Michael Keston, the chairman and CEO of the KFG Investments Co. (2) Dean Yannis C. Yortsos of USC Viterbi School of Engineering (3) Jason Matheny, the director of IARPA (4) Premkumar “Prem” Natarajan, Research Professor of Computer Science and the Michael Keston Executive Director for the Information Sciences Institute. Photo credit: Steve Cohn
Forecasting or anticipatory intelligence was the theme of the inaugural annual Keston Lecture organized by the USC Information Sciences Institute (ISI), held on August 24 at the Galen Center.
Made possible through a generous gift from Michael and Linda Keston to ISI, these lecture series are designed to spark ideas, generate conversations, and inspire future innovations. 
The first speaker in the Michael Keston lecture series was Jason Matheny, the director of the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA), an organization that supports high-risk, high-payoff research programs to tackle some of the most difficult challenges facing the intelligence community. Matheny opened his address by reminding the audience that “most of our important decisions are about the future and affecting a future outcome.” 
Jason Matheny: "Most of our important decisions are about the future and affecting a future outcome." Photo credit: Steve Cohn
He talked about IARPA’s forecasting tournaments in which research teams try to predict real-world events before they happen. Using public data and crowdsourced predictions collected from around the globe, IARPA’s team of analysts have uncovered interesting insights about human judgment and the inherent limitations of our cognitive biases, with surprising takeaways about where the most accurate predictions often come from.
Some of his findings include:
  • Forecasting tournaments can prevent serious cheating or subtle mistakes caused by wishful thinking 
  • Forecasting tournaments focus on outcomes rather than processes
  • Averaging many different independent judgments can yield significantly more accurate predictions than any single individual or a group of experts
  • The best forecasters are not people with deep domain expertise, but rather people with strong critical thinking and cognitive abilities
  • Because the participants are not geographically contained, they can predict events that analysts might overlook
  • Forecasting tournaments are not yet as powerful in predicting extremely rare events 
Detailed information about IARPA’s related research is available on their website,
The well-attended inaugural lecture took place in the Galen Center’s illustrious Brian and Susan Kennedy Founders’ Club Room. Over 70 researchers, scientists, and faculty members gathered to hear the lecture. 
Among the attendees were the engineer philanthropist and real-estate icon, Michael Keston, as well as Premkumar “Prem” Natarajan, Research Professor of Computer Science, the Michael Keston Executive Director for the Information Sciences Institute and Vice Dean of Engineering at Viterbi School. Mahta Moghaddam and Executive Vice Dean for Engineering John O’Brien, both professors at the USC Ming Hsieh Department of Electrical Engineering, also attended the event.
Natarajan and Yortsos made the opening remarks, welcoming everyone and sharing their vision for the future of ISI. They explained that today’s exponential growth of technology has not only been empowering but has also caused unintended consequences, many of which relate to national security. ISI, in collaboration with such organizations as IARPA, hopes to play a key role in tackling many of these grand challenges.
Dean Yannis C. Yortsos of USC Viterbi School of Engineering said that “Michael and Linda Keston’s gift will help further propel ISI to the leading edge of thought leadership in information and computer science technology.”
The pair also thanked Keston for his generous gift, acknowledging the positive impact that the endowment, the first significant one for ISI, will have on advancing the institute’s research and innovation initiatives. 
“Your gift is an endorsement of the value we bring to the community. A reinforcement of the importance of what we do,” Natarajan said.
Keston, the chairman and CEO of the KFG Investments Co., has a long history with USC. He is currently on the board of councilors of the USC Viterbi School of Engineering and USC Price School of Public Policy while serving on the executive committee of the USC Lusk Center for Real Estate. He also teaches courses on real estate development at USC. 
In an earlier interview, Keston had said that he likes to contribute to causes that are important in the world. “More than a project in particular, what drew my interest toward ISI was the talented people who work there.” 
The event ended with an optimistic forecast by Matheny: “I predict that the Keston lecture series will be a great success. That the researcher in residence will be a great success. I really look forward to all the research here at USC helping to improve national intelligence and our ability to make sense of the world.”