The results are in for the first NFL Sunday of the year, and Microsoft’s intrepid game predictor Cortana fumbled more than half of its calls, with a 46 percent success rate.
Cortana is the two-year-old voice of Bing Predicts, the Microsoft search engine that gauges a million-and-one variables to make bold predictions on everything from the World Cup (where it made its name going 15 for 15 in the knockout round) to the 2016 Grammy Awards (a smooth 20 for 22).
Cortana is not a physical object. It is a Windows-based voice service, much like Apple’s Siri exists on your iPhone.
You ask: “Cortana, who will win tonight’s Redskins game against Pittsburgh?” Cortana then offers a prediction.
Cortana’s tough Sunday continued a downward slide since the service started making NFL predictions in 2014, when it scored a 67 percent success rate. Last year she finished with a 161-95 record (63 percent), but still a few games ahead of the Las Vegas oddsmakers.
The brain behind Bing Predicts said he is playing the long game.
“Last year, we opened at 13-3, but this year we are so far 6-8 with two games to go, going 1-5 in games decided by 2 or less points,” said Walter Sun, who goes by the formal title of partner applied science manager. “All three games decided by a last-minute field goal didn’t go our way–Carolina and Arizona missing. Cincinnati making. These types of outcomes tend to revert to 50 percent accuracy as the year progresses to stabilize our accuracy.”
Besides, sports tends to be, well, unpredictable, Sun said.
“While our models have gotten accuracies in excess of 85 percent for reality shows, award shows, and politics consistently, the sports models have more week-to-week variability because many factors exist which are less predictable. I suppose the adage ‘that’s why they play the game’ most suitably explains this variability for sports predictions.”
Cortana miscalled several Sunday games, including the New England Patriots surprise win over the heavily favored Arizona Cardinals. (Even the Las Vegas oddsmakers called the Patriots a 6-point underdog.) Cortana gave the Cardinals a 67 percent likelihood of winning. The Patriots squeaked by, 23-21, without its star quarterback, Tom Brady, who is suspended for his alleged role in deflating footballs during a playoff game a couple of seasons ago.
Cortana predicted the Atlanta Falcons had a 58 percent chance of beating the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The birds lost by a touchdown,
The heaviest favorite on Sunday was the Seattle Seahawks, massive favorites over the Miami Dophins. The oddsmakers (courtesy of Business Insider) spotted the fish more than 10 points. Cortana made Seattle its biggest favorite, with a 78 percent likelihood of winning. Seattle won, but only by two points, 12-10.
Sun calls his Bing Predicts baby “kind of a showroom” for practical business applications for would-be customers.
“We are saying, ‘Hey, look. We can use similar technology to help you solve problems.’ ”
“A company can use our analytics to improve demand forecasting. Say your company sells consumer products. An ice cream company wants to know where to focus their sales. We can look at what people are doing on the web and inform them on what parts of the country have a high affinity, which areas like or dislike their product and at what magnitude.”
This is pretty big-noggin stuff. In addition to the computer algorithms, massive statistics, Microsoft’s software looks at web and social data such as what pages people click on for certain searches. The idea is to measure fuzzy feelings such as general sentiment.
“We also add the wisdom of the crowd,” he said. The idea is, no single person knows everything. “But in aggregate, the average information has value.”
“Cortana,” you ask, “who will win this week’s Redskins game against the Pittsburgh Steelers?” Cortana is calling the game 53 percent in favor of Steeltown.