Ever since sci-fi began to boom in the 19th century (and our Luddite forefathers chucked their clogs into cotton mills to wreck them!) we humans have been freaking ourselves out about the power of new technology – and what happens if we lose control or let it replace us.
The very earliest silent films were obsessed with the potential and the threat of scientific advancement… and while the type of tech we talk about has shifted, this remains a hugely popular theme to this day.
What’s more, as the technology that shapes our daily lives is increasingly powered by code, computers and (above all) data, it’s not just industry nerds who are scrabbling to find ways that this information can change the way we live and work. It’s filmmakers, too.
Here are five famous films that, when you think about it, are really about BI!
Moneyball is the true “David and Goliath” tale of a struggling sports team… with a difference.
Rather than the players transforming themselves into incredible athletes and carrying themselves to victory through sheer grit or a match-day miracle, their more realistic manager, Billy (played by Brad Pitt), is the one who has the epiphany.
Billy doesn’t have the budget to save the Oakland A’s by bidding for star players, but he realizes that he can compete with the bigger clubs by outsmarting them in the way they put teams together.
Of course, the old dinosaurs of the coaching and scouting team aren’t keen on the idea that data analysis can trump years of experience and intuition…
… But Billy and his economics-grad computer genius, Pete, push on with their analysis-driven approach, and win.
For extra BI-geek points, here’s the scene where Pete explains the complex mathematical process he uses to draw out the intelligence that shapes their strategy, and ultimately saves the club:
Set in England during WW2, this is another true story, this time about an elite team of codebreakers tasked with deciphering secret Nazi messages, in order to help the Allies win the war.
Led by Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch), the team are well aware that, no matter how hard or how fast they work, doing this manually will never be efficient enough. Instead, Turing races to build a computer that will analyze the messages at lightning speed, helping them to crack the Enigma Code.
As you can see in this clip, while the creation of the computer allows the team to break the code, the film also touches on the kinds of things computers can’t interpret – the contextual and non-rational elements that it takes a person to understand, and the crucial role this plays in analysis.
A Beautiful Mind
The third true story on this list is that of Nobel Prizer John Nash, a maths genius who began his studies at Princeton in the late 1940s and becomes famous for devising mathematical formulae to interpret and model everyday phenomena.
Here’s the famous bar scene where Nash essentially uses predictive analytics to figure out the best way for all his friends to hook up with a girl (by NOT going for the hottie), laying the foundations for his groundbreaking theory, the Nash Equilibrium:
Another film about a brilliant Ivy League student, in 21, MIT undergrad Ben joins a student blackjack group, led by his professor, that aims to make a quick buck by taking card-counting and mathematical analysis to the next level.
Of course, this is all done mentally, at the table – the team have to remember every card, communicate these to each other, keep track of the cards played and then analyze what’s left to calculate the probability of winning a hand.
… And, of course, the violent casino enforcer tracking their success isn’t too happy to discover they’re cheating, either!
Using predictive analytics to guide your business strategy or anticipate a disaster is one thing, but can you ever be sure that things will happen exactly as you expect? Are there some things you can’t act on until they really happen? Can you blame a person for an outcome that you end up averting?
These are the underlying questions posed in Minority Report, the story of a senior police chief (Tom Cruise) in the “Precrime Unit” who is himself accused of committing a murder – in the future.
The idea is that the Precrime Unit collects and analyzes detailed premonitions of murder, analyzes them to figure out exactly how and where the murder will take place, and then race to the scene to arrest the perpetrator before he has time to go through with it. Their system is supposed to be infallible… but it turns out that sometimes the data doesn’t match up, details get missed, or people with know-how can manipulate the source of information to get the results they want, causing people to be put away for crimes you can’t prove they would ever have committed (and others to abuse the system):
What’s REALLY interesting about Minority Report, though, isn’t even the central premise, but rather how it accurately predicted (perhaps inspired?) many developments in data analysis, machine learning, automation, and intuitive design today.
Everything from the motion-sensor / gesture-responsive interfaces of the computers used by Precrime, to the tailored advertising that identifies individual customers and responds to them by name, to self-driving cars have all found their way into the real world in the 15 years since Minority Report was released.
Here’s a fascinating summary from CNN:
What’s the Obsession?
Data analytics, automation, and high-level math are hardly obvious choices for a movie plot – so why are they central to so many great films?
Our guess it that it all comes down to human curiosity and our relentless search for answers, in all facets of life. Whether you’re running a business, solving crime or creating a blueprint for a better society, people everywhere realize more and more that you can no longer rely purely on intuition or habit to get things done right.
Data analysis, business intelligence, machine learning… these aren’t just useful tools and technologies, they’re a whole way of processing and interpreting the world; a way of taking out the fallible parts of the way people think and act, in order to become more objective, rational, and intelligent.
While we’re (evidently!) still working out the best ways to balance human decision-making with smart machines, if these blockbusters tell us anything, it’s that our species is obsessed with what technology can do – and how to stay on the right side of the brave new world we’re building for ourselves.